Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Stack Cleanup Bolsters H-bomb
The world works in strange ways. People puzzle over how much is engineers’ logic, how much is chance, and how much is from a sprinkle of mystic dust. The Tales this month trace an unlikely bead chain of exceptional doings.
The story begins in the 1920s at a remote zinc and lead smelter in Trail, British Columbia, eight miles north of the U.S. border. The huge old smelter pours 600-700 tons daily of SO2 out its stacks and down the Columbia River Valley.
By 1928, the loss of crops and trees 40 miles and more into Washington is so great the U.S. sues before an international tribunal. In the early ’30s, some relief is won in court. The company, Consolidated Mining & Smelting Co. of Canada, Ltd., moves to capture some 500 tons a day of SO2 from their stack gases, 50 years before New Mexico smelters would have controls.
But what to do with so much sulfur?
The plot turns to fertilizer production. The business solution for Trail is told in Chemical & Metallurgical Engineering (Nov. 1931) in this way:
A lowly byproduct – sulphuric dioxide in smelter fume – and cheap hydro-electric power underlie the whole impressive development at Trail, B. C. To utilize sulphuric acid … a new wet-process phosphoric-acid unit was built. To utilize a part of this output as ammonium phosphate (for fertilizer), a new synthetic ammonia plant was built. To utilize cheap power, electrolytic cells were selected as a source of hydrogen (to make ammonia). So begins the chain of utilization and interrelation that may well develop into Canada’s largest chemical industry.
Fertilizer, though, was little known back then in the prairie provinces. Consolidated Mining & Smelting set out to demonstrate its value, in part with carloads of “free samples” for farmers to try on their fields.
By grace and hard work, the answer to hurting crops led to new products to help crops. Markets grew, as did profits. All because an international court forced stack controls and a company got down to business.
The plot twists on … 1941. The war starts, and the Manhattan Project races to build an atomic bomb. The research requires heavy water, perhaps tons of the new material, quickly. But how? From where?
Think back to that far-off smelter-fertilizer plant, chugging away in the high hills of Trail, B. C. Thanks to enforced stack cleanup, the vast plant has now been electrolyzing water for a decade.
By nature’s laws, electrolysis of water enriches it in the rare natural isotope of hydrogen, deuterium (D), needed to make heavy water (D2O). Keen minds at Columbia, Princeton, Minnesota, and Northwestern universities and many industrial colleagues decide Trail is a good source of D2O.
The plot spins faster. September 1942: construction starts on a heavy-water plant at Trail. June 1943: plant operation begins. September-December 1944: full production rates of a half-ton a month of D2O are achieved.
Thus comes heavy water from the plant at Trail, tied to a fertilizer plant, that was built in the ’30s because so many tons of SO2 from a Canadian smelter damaged crops in Washington’s Columbia River Valley in the 1920s. Eventually the heavy water from Trail and other sources serves in developing the hydrogen bomb of the 1950s.
The twists of the story are many. Bad weighs against good. The verdict is yours to wonder at.
A personal note: My late father-in-law, Columbia graduate Thomas G. Reynolds, went to Trail to help engineer the heavy-water plant. Princeton graduate Dr. Edward Hammel went to Trail in 1943 to help start the heavy-water plant; then came to Los Alamos in 1944, a year before the test at Trinity Site. In 1962, I joined the national laboratory’s cryogenics group, of which Ed was then leader.