Monday, December 31, 2007

C.J. Barton, Sr. Molten Salt Chemistry

Shortly after my father, C.J. Barton, Sr., completed his Zarconium-Halfnium separation research, he was shifted administratively to ORNL, although he remained physically at Y-12 until 1959. In July 1950 he was reassigned to the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) Project. The Air Force had been thinking for some time about building reactor powered aircraft. It was quite frankly a hare brained scheme, but Alvin Weinberg knew how to play along with a joke. The ORNL approach was to build a small, very hot reactor, that would could provide enough heat to the aircraft's jet engine, to replace burning of jet fuel as a source of power for the engine. Light watter reactors were much to large to perform the task, and ORNL favored a molten salt reactor design.

My father also joined the new ORNL Reator Chemistry devision. My father's star among Oak Ridge chemists was assending due to his role in the Zarconium-Halfnium project. Molten Salt reactors are regarded as the playground of reactor chemists, and my father was assigned the role of group leader. His group of chemists was assigned the task of reviewing chemical literature on materials suitable for a molten salt reactor, and coming up with the formula for the ANP reactor. Research conducted under my father's supervision showed that a NaF, ZrF4, UF4 mix would make a satisfactory although in some respects not ideal Fluid. Zarconium was avaliable because my father's earlier research at Y-12 had lead to an industrial process for the seperation of Zarconium from Hafnium. Because of the danger of working with Berilium, it was decided to defer use of a superior formula involving the use of Lithium7. The more satisfactory salt mixture (LiF, BeF2, UF4) had already been idenitfied, but its use was delayed until the molten salt reactor experiment. My father and Warren Grimes held the patent on the NaF, ZrF4, UF4 salt mix. The LiF, BeF2, UF4 mix was not patentable, because the use of BeF2 had been suggested by an outside ccontractor prior to ORNL's involvement in the ANP project.

Much of the group's effort was directed to determining the melting point of various proposed Salt mixtures. These studies lead to triangular diagrams. My father was the leader of the reserch group assigned to come up with molten salt formuli.

Politics and cultural differences eventually lead to conflict between my father and his boss, Warren Grimes. My father was an East Tennessee "hillbilly," who had grown up in the mountain town of Jellico, Tennessee. He shared many cultural and religious attitudes native Tennesseans. Warren Grimes was not an East Tennessean. My father, like many East Tennesseans, believed that liquor was evil. He favored a prohibition of alcohol in the local county, and in fact became a leader of the prohibitionist faction in a local liquor refruendum. Grimes liked to drink. A disagreement over a liquor referendum lead to conflict between the two men. Grimes removed my father from leadership of the molten salt research group, and assigned him to another task. No doubt Grimes was able to get away with this because others in the ORNL leadership were upset with my fathers for his "nativist" views. Lab politics is always a part of science.

It had been propose that the molten salt reactor could use plutonium as a fuel. Some plutonium is generated and burned in light water reactors, but plutonium was, in the 1950's not included in the reactor fuel mix. However, if 238 was used in the molten Salt reactor, plutonium would be breed. As a consequence, the behavior of plutonium in a molten salt fuel mix needed to be understood. My father was assigned the task of determining the soluability of PuF3 salt in the molten salt fuel. Relationships were expresed in triangular phase diagrams. This project requited the use of glove boxes as research tools. My father traveled to Los Alomos to learn techniques for doing chemical research with plutonium. In addition, Los Alomos provided him with several kilograms of pure Pu 239 for his research.

A major aspect of my father;s research involved the development of a glove box design that could be used in the presence of high molten PuF3 and other salts. During the 1950's the glove box had a evil reputation with AEC researchers. There had been a history of glove box fires and other accidents. Part of my father's research task was to develop a glove box design that would be safe and would allow him to conduct what must have been a very difficult research task. He began this aspect of his research with a extensive literature review on glove box construction and research techniques. My father's literature review led him to write a report on glove box construction that is included in the Department of Energy's database. In addition, my father was asked to write a chapter on Glove Box Techniques, for Techniques of Inorganic Chemistry, Vol. III. Techniques was a manual for inorganic chemical research. My father's plutonium research produced an journal article, SOLUBILITY OF PLUTONIUM TRIFLUORIDE IN FUSED-ALKALI FLUORIDE—BERYLLIUM FLUORIDE MIXTURES, by CJ Barton in The Journal of Physical Chemistry 64:33, 306-309.

My father's Plutonium research caused him concern because Plutonium was regarded as highly dangerous.
Y-12 supervisors were worried about it too. One day during my father's Pu 239 research there was a radiation incident at Y-12, and alarms went off. A supervisor rushed to my father's lab, geiger counter in hand, fearing that the incident involved my father's plutonium. My father was always extremely careful, and the incident was elsewhere.


Kirk Sorensen said...

Fascinating story! I thought you were going to tell me that the East Tennesseans liked to drink!

Charles Barton said...

Kirk, some do, but it was notorious in the East Tennessee of my childhood, that people voted dry but drank wet. Bootlegers and moonshiners were important members of East Tennessee society, witness the classic Robert Mitchum movie, "Thunder Road."

Anonymous said...

I have just written you about my grandfather with a little insight into my grandmother.

This story of yours about ET brought to mind a story my father told of the use of an airstrip near where Bull Run Steam is today. He related that airborne bootleggers were quite busy when he was a child, bring liquor in for the more cosmopolitan Oak Ridgers. No doubt, my grandmother, who was quite the imbiber, used my grandfathers clout to keep her bar stocked. At least, that is the inference my father made. He was not one to speak unkindly, but to say my grandmother was an imbiber is an understated of great proportions.



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