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Pittsburgh’s Abandoned Atom Smasher

Posted on November 13, 2013

The world’s first industrial particle accelerator sits rusting away in the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, its future unclear. It was cutting edge technology when it was built in 1937, but when the company retired it in 1958, it was a relic of an obsolete technology. Six months ago, a D.C. real estate developer with a penchant for history bought the site and has been doing what he can to preserve the giant silver teardrop. If all goes according to plan, he’ll convert the old atom smasher into an education center while turning the rest of the property into rental units.

The Atom Smasher is part of the old Westinghouse Research Laboratories. Founded in 1916, the labs were originally set up as the company’s Mechanics Department to improve their water turbines and electrical generators. They had divisions on metallurgy, magnetics, physics chemistry and mechanics. In 1935, researchers in the nascent nuclear division convinced the company to build the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

It was a bold move to build the machine. Nuclear fission wouldn’t be discovered for two more years and it was unclear what the commercial benefits of a particle accelerator might be. It’s hard to imagine a company today investing so much money in a technology without any known uses.

At the time it was completed it was the most powerful accelerator in the world, able to energize particles up to five million electron volts. By comparison, today CERN’s Large Hadron Collider can instill than one million times as much energy into the same kinds of particles.

Image: The Senator John Heinz History Center

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher is an electrostatic accelerator, which works differently than the cyclotrons being developed by Earnest Lawrence in Berkeley California at the same time. It’s one of a very few left standing today.

They work the same as a Van de Graaff generator; the electrically charged metal domes that make your hair stand on end when you touch them. In both the classroom science kit and the atom smasher, rubber conveyer belts carry negatively charged electrons away from the metal hemisphere on top, giving its dome a strong positive charge. The smasher’s rollers can be seen on the left, but the conveyer belts are long gone.

A radioactive filament inside the smasher’s dome released ions into the end of the 47-foot-long beam pipe. The dome’s five-million-Volt charge repelled the positive ions and protons emitted by the filament, sending them shooting straight down the tube at near the speed of light, into experiments below.

Inside the beam pipe, magnetic fields from electrified wires guided the positively charged ions and protons.

Even after the atom smasher was completed, it was far from obvious that fundamental nuclear research would yield anything useful. Even the associate director of research, Edward Condon tried to keep expectations low. He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1940 that he thought it was “out of the question to look to atomic study with the hope of harnessing the atom’s energy for a power plant. We don’t expect to put the atom to work in any such way, but we do know that before we can control nature we must understand her.”

Eleven years later, the world’s first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, was launched with a Westinghouse nuclear reactor powering it. Five years after that, the first commercial nuclear power plant opened in Shippingport Pennsylvania, also with a Westinghouse reactor at its heart. By the 1970s, the majority of power plants around the world used Westinghouse designs.

Six years after the smasher was completed, the operators were faced with a crisis. On a frigid February in Schenectady New York there was a huge explosion in a hydrogen storage tank built by the same company that built the smasher, Chicago Bridge and Iron Works. The tank burst not because the flammable hydrogen ignited, but because the steel tank was so brittle it blew apart from the internal pressure alone. All research at the smasher was halted while every weld was X-rayed and defects repaired.

Though the Atom Smasher was the lab’s centerpiece, research continued on many other projects. During World War II engineers working at the lab’s mechanics department designed some of the earliest jet engine prototypes, microwave technology for radar and gyroscopic controls for tanks. The first centrifuges designed to enrich uranium were developed there as well, though the technology wasn’t yet advanced enough for the Manhattan Project.

During the war the Atom Smasher itself was shuttered. Most nuclear research was deemed classified, and moved to secret locations like Los Alamos. However the company did have an important, foundational role in the building of the bomb. The Westinghouse Lamp Plant in nearby Bloomfield New Jersey supplied the uranium for Enrico Fermi’s criticality test pile at the University of Chicago, the world’s first nuclear reactor.

Researchers used the Atom Smasher for years after the war, but by the Eisenhower administration, the machine was beginning to show its age. Cyclotrons had gotten smaller and more powerful and in 1956, Westinghouse announced that it was going build one of its own at a research lab in the next town over. In 1958, they shut the Atom Smasher down for good, though research into reactor technology continued at the lab for decades.

In 1985, the IEEE History Committee designated the smasher as a milestone of engineering in the country.

By the early 1990s, Westinghouse was in dire financial straights. It sold off its stake in power distribution in 1994, and merged with CBS the following year. Without a need for fundamental research, the lab closed down in 1996 and has remained vacant ever since. The property has since changed hands several times. Three of the oldest buildings were torn down in 2004.

D.C. real estate developer Gary Silversmith bought up the property in April of this year. He has a soft spot for history and also bought and restored what was once the official presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Sequoia.

Though he plans to turn most of the grounds into rental units, Silversmith has been trying to preserve the giant steel Atom Smasher itself. He’s reached out to the Smithsonian Institute and the Heinz Historical Society to see if there was any way to relocate it, but the 90-ton steel tank is just too massive to move.

His aims to turn it into an interactive education facility, a place for local high schools to come on field trips and learn about science and technology. He’s been working with the superintendent of the local school district to come up with plans to turn the small brick building at the atom smasher’s base, into classrooms. The Westinghouse Company has funded a study to survey the building. However it could cost at least a million dollars to fully refurbish the accelerator.

Image: The Senator John Heinz History Center

Source: PhysicsCentral

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