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September 29, 2003

And We Thought Teller Was Dead

With any luck, Carl Collins and his scientist pals in Texas will be proven wrong. If not, then we are on our way to a new age of destruction which will have us looking back fondly to the Cold War.

Here's my advice. Sell all your biotech stocks and find out where you can drop some ducats on Hafnium. For this is the stuff of the atomic grenades of the future. You may as well hedge the bet by putting some chips down on Thorium and Niobium as well. Actually, that may not work because it will become nationalized, but you're a smart investor, you'll figure out how to corner the market.

Apparently, these elements have isotopes that are nuclear isomers. That means that they can be excited to certain states at which they release great amounts of energy as gamma rays. It's something like nuclear fission without the ugly byproducts. Sounds appetizing? You betcha.

According to the New Scientist:

Scientists have known for many years that the nuclei of some elements, such as hafnium, can exist in a high-energy state, or nuclear isomer, that slowly decays to a low-energy state by emitting gamma rays. For example, hafnium178m2, the excited, isomeric form of hafnium-178, has a half-life of 31 years.

The possibility that this process could be explosive was discovered when Carl Collins and colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas demonstrated that they could artificially trigger the decay of the hafnium isomer by bombarding it with low-energy Xrays (New Scientist, 3 July 1999, p42). The experiment released 60 times as much energy as was put in, and in theory a much greater energy release could be achieved

The fine fellows at SRS are trying to find ways to manufacture mass quantities of this very rare element, which will be quite expensive. But dig this, there's no such thing as a critical mass. You can make really tiny weapons. Maybe you can flatten a block with a suitcase bomb. Exciting mad scientist stuff, that is if you can get it to explode. If it just fizzles, it will have the same ethical nastiness as neutron weapons do now, but if it goes boom, it's likely to get used.

Well, the controversy is just getting started.

"In my opinion, this matter is worse than cold fusion," said panel member Bill Herrmannsfeldt, referring to unconfirmed claims by scientists in the 1980s that they had generated nuclear fusion energy at low temperatures. Herrmannsfeldt, a physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, is leading a revolt against hafnium-178 weapons work within HIPP itself.

Although Herrmannsfeldt regards claims for hafnium-178's super-energy powers as nonsense, he fears that other nations will take them seriously, triggering a new arms race. Recently, he successfully urged numerous top scientists to co-sign a letter to Washington officials citing experts' reservations about the scientific credibility of hafnium-178 claims and asking for a review of those claims by independent experts.

FAS has nothing on it yet. Keep your eyes open.

Posted by mbowen at September 29, 2003 12:04 AM

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It's unfortunate that this preocess doesn't work after all. I was looking forward to cars, aircraft, and other personal items powered by Hafnium-178 reactors. The Hafnium-178 would have been a clean, although secondary, source of heat for use in such devices.

Posted by: Charles Cunningham at November 3, 2004 10:36 AM