Doe Science news source
The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2012-12-10 13:40:00
  • Article ID: 597094

How the First Chain Reaction Changed Science

  • Credit: Robert Kozloff

    Henry Moore's sculpture "Nuclear Energy" marks the site of the first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942. The sculpture, created in 1967, lies just north of the Manuseto Library on Ellis Avenue.

  • Credit: University of Chicago

    The first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place under the west stands of the former Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.

  • Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

    The first nuclear reactor was a crude assembly of graphite bricks and uranium. This rare photograph of the reactor, which was taken during the addition of the 19th layer of graphite in November 1942. On Dec. 2, 1942, the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was achieved in the device on the University of Chicago campus.

  • Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

    Scientists who worked on the first nuclear chain reaction gather on Dec. 2, 1946, the fourth anniversary of the experiment, on the steps of Eckhart Laboratory Building. (Enrico Fermi, who led the team, stands in the left of the front row).

Steve Koppes


How the first chain reaction changed science

The Atomic Age began at 3:25 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1942—quietly, in secrecy, on a squash court under the west stands of old Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.

Today, Henry Moore’s “Nuclear Energy” sculpture and the Mansueto Library occupy the area at the corner of Ellis Avenue and 57th Street where Enrico Fermi and his colleagues engineered the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction 70 years ago. Their experiment was a key step in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.

That initial chain reaction was too weak to power even a single light bulb. It nevertheless transformed the world, and the University of Chicago along with it, in a range of endeavors spanning physics, chemistry, interdisciplinary research, policy analysis, and nuclear medicine. Even in 1942, those present at the historic event sensed how influential their work would be.

“All of us . . . knew that with the advent of the chain reaction, the world would never be the same again,” former UChicago physicist Samuel K. Allison wrote at the time.

That first chain reaction’s complex legacy includes the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, the terrible power of nuclear weapons, and a new era of other scientific and technological advances.

After the war, UChicago founded the Institute for Nuclear Studies and the Institute for the Study of Metals. Later renamed the Enrico Fermi and the James Franck institutes, they enabled the University to retain much of the intellectual talent that had assembled on campus to work on the Manhattan Project. Another outgrowth of the project was Argonne National Laboratory, which conducts basic and applied research in many major scientific disciplines. Today, Argonne is a partner in the Institute for Molecular Engineering, which is bringing leading scientists and engineers to a groundbreaking initiative to conduct research at the molecular level.

“What we see here is a legacy of connection that we’re still building upon, a way to try to redefine engineering for the 21st century," said Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics.

Building the pile

Though Fermi’s team was engaged in the biggest secret project of World War II, they discussed technical issues under a tree on the Main Quad, which they deemed safe from eavesdroppers. In the middle of the day on which they produced the first chain reaction, they took a customary lunch break at Hutchinson Commons.

“Don’t imagine that they were able to achieve a chain reaction on the first try,” says Roger Hildebrand, the Samuel K. Allison Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics. “They built and rebuilt stacks of uranium, uranium oxide, and graphite 30 times before they were ready for the final test.”

Chicago Pile Number One, or CP-1 for short, consisted of 40,000 graphite blocks that enclosed 19,000 pieces of uranium metal and uranium oxide fuel. The scientists of what was then called the Metallurgical Laboratory, or “Met Lab,” had arranged the graphite in layers within a 24-foot-square wooden framework.

Hildebrand had started his work on the Manhattan Project as an undergraduate chemistry major at the University of California, Berkeley. He worked for Nobel laureate Ernest Lawrence, namesake of the Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories, using Berkeley’s cyclotron accelerator to transmute uranium into plutonium, an element believed to have potential for driving a chain reaction.

The samples irradiated in Berkeley and another lab in St. Louis ended up in the James Herbert Jones Laboratory, just one block south of old Stagg Field. There, in Jones Lab’s Room 405, future Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg achieved an important steppingstone on the way to the Atomic Age. He weighed the first visible, pinhead-sized sample of plutonium. It wasn’t much, but enough to measure its chemical and metallurgical properties.

The potential hazards of nuclear power were evident even in those early days, but the war effort took priority. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Germany and Italy declared war on the United States four days later.

“They were advancing everywhere, they were conquering everywhere, and they were working on an atomic bomb,” Hildebrand said of the Germans. “The consequence of losing a nuclear race was the preoccupation of everyone who knew that a nuclear bomb might be possible.”

Outgrowths of chain reaction

The scientific staff of the Metallurgical Laboratory founded the Atomic Scientists of Chicago on Sept. 26, 1945—just weeks after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The group published the first issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago on Dec. 10, 1945. The Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock still stands as a symbol of humanity’s vulnerability to man-made catastrophe, with an agenda that expanded from nuclear weapons to include climate change and biological weapons.

Medical research gained unexpected benefits from the wartime research. In the early 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission funded the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, which became the Franklin McLean Institute, 5841 S. Ellis Ave., in 1973. The Argonne Hospital successfully pioneered the use of radiation in cancer treatment, with efforts later expanding to include radiological innovations in the diagnosis and treatment of other diseases.

Although the University of Chicago already was renowned in physics and chemistry before World War II, scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project helped those departments attain new research prominence following the war. Numerous UChicago scientists who were part of the war effort won Nobel Prizes for scholarly work in the postwar period, including Owen Chamberlain, Eugene P. Wigner, and Glenn Seaborg. Fermi, one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, became an inspiring teacher at UChicago after the war before dying of stomach cancer in 1954. The National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia was renamed in Fermi’s honor in 1974, and became known as Fermilab, the site of numerous fundamental advances in particle physics.

UChicago builds for the future

Today, the William Eckhart Research Center is rising from a construction site directly across the street from where Fermi and his associates achieved the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. The Eckhart Center will occupy the site of the former Research Institutes building, where Fermi and many other Manhattan Project veterans did transformative research.

UChicago scientists formally honored the Research Institutes’ legacy in June 2011, when they publicly revealed the contents of the time capsule that Fermi had sealed within the Research Institutes building cornerstone nearly 62 years earlier. In retrospect the cornerstone’s contents, which included booklets on the institutes and a sketch of their building, barely hinted at the accomplishments that would follow. That inspiring legacy survives to this day, said Robert Fefferman, dean of the University’s Physical Sciences Division.

“This is not just something about the distant past,” Fefferman, remarked at the cornerstone unveiling ceremony. “This is something that continues, and we’re extremely proud of the grand tradition of science here.”

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

The Challenge of Estimating Alaska's Soil Carbon Stocks

A geospatial analysis determined the optimal distribution of sites needed to reliably estimate Alaska's vast soil carbon.

Strain-Free Epitaxy of Germanium Film on Mica

Germanium was the material of choice in the early history of electronic devices, and due to its high charge carrier mobility, it's making a comeback. It's generally grown on expensive single-crystal substrates, adding another challenge to making it sustainably viable for most applications. To address this aspect, researchers demonstrate an epitaxy method that incorporates van der Waals' forces to grow germanium on mica. They discuss their work in the Journal of Applied Physics.

Unplugging the Cellulose Biofuel Bottleneck

Molecular-level understanding of cellulose structure reveals why it resists degradation and could lead to cost-effective biofuels.

Detailed View of Immune Proteins Could Lead to New Pathogen-Defense Strategies

Biologists at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley used cryo-EM to resolve the structure of a ring of proteins used by the immune system to summon support when under attack, providing new insight into potential strategies for protection from pathogens. The researchers captured the high-resolution image of a protein ring, called an inflammasome, as it was bound to flagellin, a protein from the whiplike tail used by bacteria to propel themselves forward.

Unlocking the Secrets of Ebola

Scientists have identified a set of biomarkers that indicate which patients infected with the Ebola virus are most at risk of dying from the disease. The results come from one of the most in-depth studies ever of blood samples from patients with Ebola.

Scientists Make First Observations of How a Meteor-Like Shock Turns Silica Into Glass

Studies at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have made the first real-time observations of how silica - an abundant material in the Earth's crust - easily transforms into a dense glass when hit with a massive shock wave like one generated from a meteor impact.

How Fungal Enzymes Break Down Plant Cell Walls

Lignocellulose-degrading enzyme complexes could improve biofuel production.

Stretching to Perfection of 2-D Semiconductors

Scientists use heat and mismatched surfaces to stretch films that can potentially improve the efficient operation of devices.

Simple is Beautiful in Quantum Computing

Defect spins in diamond were controlled with a simpler, geometric method, leading to faster computing.

Replace or Wait? Study Says Swap All Incandescent Bulbs Now, but Hold on to CFLs, older LEDs

LED light bulbs are getting cheaper and more energy efficient every year. So, does it make sense to replace less-efficient bulbs with the latest light-emitting diodes now, or should you wait for future improvements and even lower costs?

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

Argonne to Install Comanche System to Explore ARM Technology for High-Performance Computing

Argonne National Laboratory is collaborating with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to provide system software expertise and a development ecosystem for a future high-performance computing (HPC) system based on 64-bit ARM processors.

CANDLE Shines in 2017 HPCwire Readers' and Editors' Choice Awards

Argonne National Laboratory has been recognized in the annual <em>HPCwire</em> Readers' and Editors' Choice Awards, presented at the 2017 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis (SC17), in Denver, Colorado.

SLAC's Helen Quinn Honored with 2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics

Helen Quinn, a professor emerita at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University, will receive the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics - one of eight prestigious Franklin Institute Awards that will be handed out in Philadelphia next April.

PPPL Honors Grierson and Greenough for Distinguished Research and Engineering Achievements

Article describes PPPL's presentation of 2017 Kaul Prize and Distinguished Engineering Fellow awards.

INCITE Grants of 5.95 Billion Hours Awarded to 55 Computational Research Projects

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science announced 55 projects with high potential for accelerating discovery through its Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program. The projects will share 5.95 billion core-hours on three of America's most powerful supercomputers dedicated to capability-limited open science and support a broad range of large-scale research campaigns from infectious disease treatment to next-generation materials development.

Former SLAC Director Jonathan Dorfan Awarded Japan's Order of the Rising Sun

Former SLAC Director and Stanford University Professor Emeritus Jonathan Dorfan has been awarded Japan's Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star for his contributions as founding president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST). It is the highest award Japan bestows on university presidents.

Jefferson Lab Staff Scientist Honored with APS Fellowship

Fulvia Pilat, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has been named a fellow of the American Physical Society. The honor is bestowed by members of APS on their peers for exceptional contributions to their fields.

First Northwest Theoretical Chemistry Conference Is a Hit!

The first Northwest Theoretical Chemistry Conference was a success. The event offered ~50 early career theorists and students opportunities to present talks in a nurturing environment that developed and advanced collaborations.

Argonne Forms New Divisions to Focus on Computation and Data Science Strengths

Argonne has formed two new research divisions to focus its lab-wide foundational expertise on computational science and data science activities.

Hermann Grunder Recognized by IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society

Dr. Hermann Grunder, Founding Director of Jefferson Lab, has been selected as one of two recipients of the 2018 IEEE NPSS Particle Accelerator Science and Technology (PAST) Award.

  • Filters

  • × Clear Filters

The Challenge of Estimating Alaska's Soil Carbon Stocks

A geospatial analysis determined the optimal distribution of sites needed to reliably estimate Alaska's vast soil carbon.

Unplugging the Cellulose Biofuel Bottleneck

Molecular-level understanding of cellulose structure reveals why it resists degradation and could lead to cost-effective biofuels.

How Fungal Enzymes Break Down Plant Cell Walls

Lignocellulose-degrading enzyme complexes could improve biofuel production.

Stretching to Perfection of 2-D Semiconductors

Scientists use heat and mismatched surfaces to stretch films that can potentially improve the efficient operation of devices.

Simple is Beautiful in Quantum Computing

Defect spins in diamond were controlled with a simpler, geometric method, leading to faster computing.

The Effect of Hurricanes on Puerto Rico's Dry Forests

More frequent storms turn forests from carbon source to sink.

A Chemical Thermometer for Tropical Forests

Monoterpene measures how certain forests respond to heat stress.

Where a Leaf Lands and Lies Influences Carbon Levels in Soil for Years to Come

Whether carbon comes from leaves or needles affects how fast it decomposes, but where it ends up determines how long it's available.

Twisting Molecule Wrings More Power from Solar Cells

Readily rotating molecules let electrons last, resulting in higher solar cell efficiency.

Rules Are Only Suggestions in Heavy Elements

The arrangement of electrons in an exotic human-made element shows that certain properties of heavy elements cannot be predicted using lighter ones.


Tuesday October 03, 2017, 01:05 PM

Stairway to Science

Argonne National Laboratory

Thursday September 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

After-School Energy Rush

Argonne National Laboratory

Thursday September 28, 2017, 10:05 AM

Bringing Diversity Into Computational Science Through Student Outreach

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Thursday September 21, 2017, 03:05 PM

From Science to Finance: SLAC Summer Interns Forge New Paths in STEM

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday September 07, 2017, 02:05 PM

Students Discuss 'Cosmic Opportunities' at 45th Annual SLAC Summer Institute

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday August 31, 2017, 05:05 PM

Binghamton University Opens $70 Million Smart Energy Building

Binghamton University, State University of New York

Wednesday August 23, 2017, 05:05 PM

Widening Horizons for High Schoolers with Code

Argonne National Laboratory

Saturday May 20, 2017, 12:05 PM

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Graduates Urged to Embrace Change at 211th Commencement

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Monday May 15, 2017, 01:05 PM

ORNL, University of Tennessee Launch New Doctoral Program in Data Science

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday April 07, 2017, 11:05 AM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jonathan Kirzner

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Wednesday April 05, 2017, 12:05 PM

High-Schooler Solves College-Level Security Puzzle From Argonne, Sparks Interest in Career

Argonne National Laboratory

Tuesday March 28, 2017, 12:05 PM

Champions in Science: Profile of Jenica Jacobi

Department of Energy, Office of Science

Friday March 24, 2017, 10:40 AM

Great Neck South High School Wins Regional Science Bowl at Brookhaven Lab

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Wednesday February 15, 2017, 04:05 PM

Middle Schoolers Test Their Knowledge at Science Bowl Competition

Argonne National Laboratory

Friday January 27, 2017, 04:00 PM

Haslam Visits ORNL to Highlight State's Role in Discovering Tennessine

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Tuesday November 08, 2016, 12:05 PM

Internship Program Helps Foster Development of Future Nuclear Scientists

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Friday May 13, 2016, 04:05 PM

More Than 12,000 Explore Jefferson Lab During April 30 Open House

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Monday April 25, 2016, 05:05 PM

Giving Back to National Science Bowl

Ames Laboratory

Friday March 25, 2016, 12:05 PM

NMSU Undergrad Tackles 3D Particle Scattering Animations After Receiving JSA Research Assistantship

Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

Tuesday February 02, 2016, 10:05 AM

Shannon Greco: A Self-Described "STEM Education Zealot"

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Monday November 16, 2015, 04:05 PM

Rare Earths for Life: An 85th Birthday Visit with Mr. Rare Earth

Ames Laboratory

Tuesday October 20, 2015, 01:05 PM

Meet Robert Palomino: 'Give Everything a Shot!'

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Tuesday April 22, 2014, 11:30 AM

University of Utah Makes Solar Accessible

University of Utah

Wednesday March 06, 2013, 03:40 PM

Student Innovator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Seeks Brighter, Smarter, and More Efficient LEDs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday November 16, 2012, 10:00 AM

Texas Tech Energy Commerce Students, Community Light up Tent City

Texas Tech University

Wednesday November 23, 2011, 10:45 AM

Don't Get 'Frosted' Over Heating Your Home This Winter

Temple University

Wednesday July 06, 2011, 06:00 PM

New Research Center To Tackle Critical Challenges Related to Aircraft Design, Wind Energy, Smart Buildings

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday April 22, 2011, 09:00 AM

First Polymer Solar-Thermal Device Heats Home, Saves Money

Wake Forest University

Friday April 15, 2011, 12:25 PM

Like Superman, American University Will Get Its Energy from the Sun

American University

Thursday February 10, 2011, 05:00 PM

ARRA Grant to Help Fund Seminary Building Green Roof

University of Chicago

Tuesday December 07, 2010, 05:00 PM

UC San Diego Installing 2.8 Megawatt Fuel Cell to Anchor Energy Innovation Park

University of California San Diego

Monday November 01, 2010, 12:50 PM

Rensselaer Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center Announces First Deployment of New Technology on Campus

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Friday September 10, 2010, 12:40 PM

Ithaca College Will Host Regional Clean Energy Summit

Ithaca College

Tuesday July 27, 2010, 10:30 AM

Texas Governor Announces $8.4 Million Award to Create Renewable Energy Institute

Texas Tech University

Friday May 07, 2010, 04:20 PM

Creighton University to Offer New Alternative Energy Program

Creighton University

Wednesday May 05, 2010, 09:30 AM

National Engineering Program Seeks Subject Matter Experts in Energy

JETS Junior Engineering Technical Society

Wednesday April 21, 2010, 12:30 PM

Students Using Solar Power To Create Sustainable Solutions for Haiti, Peru

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Wednesday March 03, 2010, 07:00 PM

Helping Hydrogen: Student Inventor Tackles Challenge of Hydrogen Storage

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Thursday February 04, 2010, 02:00 PM

Turning Exercise into Electricity

Furman University

Thursday November 12, 2009, 12:45 PM

Campus Leaders Showing the Way to a Sustainable, Clean Energy Future

National Wildlife Federation (NWF)

Tuesday November 03, 2009, 04:20 PM

Furman University Receives $2.5 Million DOE Grant for Geothermal Project

Furman University

Thursday September 17, 2009, 02:45 PM

Could Sorghum Become a Significant Alternative Fuel Source?

Salisbury University

Wednesday September 16, 2009, 11:15 AM

Students Navigating the Hudson River With Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Wednesday September 16, 2009, 10:00 AM

College Presidents Flock to D.C., Urge Senate to Pass Clean Energy Bill

National Wildlife Federation (NWF)

Wednesday July 01, 2009, 04:15 PM

Northeastern Announces New Professional Master's in Energy Systems

Northeastern University

Friday October 12, 2007, 09:35 AM

Kansas Rural Schools To Receive Wind Turbines

Kansas State University

Thursday August 17, 2006, 05:30 PM

High Gas Prices Here to Stay, Says Engineering Professor

Rowan University

Showing results

0-4 Of 2215