Archive for December, 2009

The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 2)

December 22, 2009


Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire


Dec. 21, 2009

 The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 2)

           Pyrophoric Phosphorous will ignite spontaneously in air. David had removed a sample from its protective container and, in the open air, it can release flammable gases, especially when pounded with a screwdriver. Thus occurred a violent explosion in Ken and Kathy’s basement. David was blown to the floor, unconscious. Finding him there, they rushed him to the hospital where he was treated for chemical burns. His eyes were flushed to remove caustic materials, and he finally recovered, although he was treated for many months for small pieces of plastic container which had embedded themselves in his eyes.

          Kathy put a stop to all experimentation in the house. In addition, they forbad David from being in the house alone, even when they were only going a short distance to the store. The concern was that he would level the house. They locked him out when they left, and noted the time of their return so he could re-enter. Kathy began searching David’s room for hidden chemicals and apparatus, which she promptly destroyed and discarded.

          Not to be deterred, David simply transferred his laboratory to his mother’s house in Golf Manor. (not, of course, mentioning the prior incident.) There was a convenient potting shed in her back yard, and Patty was happy to keep him occupied there. David was happy to be away from the prying eyes of the world, and free to do his experiments. It was not mischief; he simply was driven to continue his passion for collecting elements.

          David was now determined to do things “safely”. He sometimes wore a gas mask while working, and often discarded his clothes and shoes when he emerged from the potting shed. Patty and Michael admired the long hours he spent working, but thought his safety procedures a bit odd. When David explained his work to Michael, he admittedly did not follow much of what was “explained”. David told Michael that the World would run out of oil soon, and “… I want to do something about that”.

          David had to earn 21 merit badges for the Eagle Scout rank. He was awarded the Atomic Energy merit badge in May of 1991 at age 14. The scout merit badge pamphlet revealed that Americium 241, one of the desired elements he needed to procure, could be found in smoke detectors. He had no financial backing, and no legal means to procure radioactive isotopes. So he invented cover stories. Later on, he purchased a Geiger Counter kit cheaply, assembled the parts and mounted the Geiger Counter on the dashboard of his Pontiac 6000.

          David wrote to dozens of smoke detector manufacturers. He said as a high school physics instructor, he needed a large number of detectors for a school demonstration. One company sold him one hundred broken detectors at a price of one dollar each. He didn’t know where the isotope was in the unit, so he wrote to another company asking questions. One customer service woman wrote back and said she’d be glad to help with his “project”. She told him a miniscule amount of the isotope was contained in a small gold button in the unit. Gold was used so it wouldn’t deteriorate and release the Americium. David quickly assembled the buttons, extracted the Americium chemically, and welded a pile of the miniscule bits together with a blowtorch.

          Americium 241 decays by emitting Alpha particles, a rather heavy charged particle easily detected by his Geiger Counter. He drilled a small hole in a lead block, inserted the Americium into the hole and, voila, had a crude “gun” emitting collimated Alpha particles. But Neutrons were what was needed to irradiate lighter elements, and change them into heavier ones by capturing a Neutron in the nucleus. He knew Aluminum atoms absorb Alphas and release Neutrons. So placing a sheet of Aluminum foil in front of the lead block produced a stream of neutrons coming out of the Aluminum. Now he could irradiate other things, and make some of the desired new elements. David had his newly made “neutron gun”, and he was ready to irradiate the world!

          Instead of choosing relatively harmless non-radioactive elements, David wanted to make some fissionable elements, in line with his plan of building a Breeder Reactor.  (A Breeder reactor starts with U235 and a little Plutonium, and when the Uranium is exhausted, it has created lots more Plutonium than it started with. So it “breeds” its own fuel in a very economical way.)  David had wanted to irradiate Uranium 235, since it would have the “biggest reaction”. But his experiments with Pitchblend and UO2 had proven futile. He couldn’t separate out Uranium, let alone the highly fissionable U235 isotope.

          The next possibility was fissionable Thorium 232. This element has a high melting point, and so was used in the mantle of older gas lamps (the part that surrounds the flame and glows when lit.)  Purchasing many hundreds of mantles from commercial companies, David reduced them to a pile of ash with his trusty blowtorch.  Now he had to isolate out the Thorium 232 from what was probably a pile of Thorium Oxide. He knew the element Lithium could pull off the Oxygen from the ash. So from his savings, he purchased $1000 worth of Lithium batteries. Cutting each one open with wire cutters, he extracted the Lithium. Wrapping the whole mess in a ball of foil, he heated the mix and nicely extracted the Thorium. It had a surprisingly high purity. In fact, David didn’t know it but his Thorium extract was very concentrated, and many times more radioactive than was permissible for possession by a U.S. citizen under regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  He tried to irradiate this with his Neutron Gun, which would change it to fissionable U233, but his gun wasn’t strong enough to make detectable U233.

          Plutonium can’t be purchased. It’s man made, usually in a running reactor. So next he turned his attention to Radium. It wasn’t fissionable but he’d been collecting old clocks and watch dials for years. Radium was used to make the clock hands glow in the dark. He was chipping off the paint from old watches and saving the bits in plastic pill bottles. This was a very labor intensive process until one day, he was driving the Pontiac over to see his girl. Suddenly the Geiger counter on the dash went crazy. The dial indicated gamma levels unheard of in civilian usage. He was passing a store named “Gloria’s Resale Botique/Antique”. Quickly he parked the car and dashed inside breathless with the Geiger Counter still sounding the danger alarm …

 (to be continued…)

The Radioactive Boy Scout

December 13, 2009

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire


Dec. 13, 2009

 The Radioactive Boy Scout

      The day was June 26, 1995. Dottie Pease was a neighbor to the Hahn’s, and was calling her husband in a panic. She had looked out of her window and saw the Hahn’s yard filled with “…men in funny suits…” walking all over her lawn. The Potting Shed in the Hahn’s yard next door was getting a lot of attention, and another frightened neighbor told Dottie that at night she often saw the potting shed surrounded by a strange bluish glow!

     Next-door to Dottie, Michael Polasek and Patty Hahn lived in an upper middle class housing development named Golf Manor, which is located 25 miles outside of the city of Detroit. Patty was a homeowner, and had a live-in boyfriend. Michael operated a forklift at the local General Motors plant. They were described by the neighbors as a quiet middle-aged couple, not married (both had previous marriages) and sometimes happy together; Patty had a son by her previous marriage named David. David visited them on weekends and holidays, but during the week lived with his father, Ken Hahn, and Ken’s second wife, Kathy. Ken was a stoic crew cut  automotive engineer working for General Motors, where he met Kathy.  Ken and Patty Hahn had divorced when David was a small boy.

     David was not your typical teenager; although he played Baseball when growing up, by age 10 he was reading voraciously about Chemistry. He joined the Boy Scouts, and became fascinated with the Periodic Chart of the Elements. His passion was one day to collect a sample of each of the elements in the chart (including, of course, the radioactive and fissionable ones). Socially, he was described as “quiet”, but in reality he had few friends and found the social graces very difficult in getting along with others. He was a poor student, especially in spelling, and in his junior year had almost failed the state exams in mathematics and reading, which were needed for graduation. He “aced” the science exam though. (The wall of his lab carried a sign which read “Caushon”.)  He noted later that Science was a place he could go to stop the feelings of failure.

          As David became more obsessed with Chemistry and the Elements, he began to ignore the few friends he had. He held odd jobs after school which allowed the purchase of equipment to set up a home laboratory in his father’s house. He bought beakers, test tubes, flasks, hosing and the other usual tools for his laboratory. He quickly moved from making alcohol, to synthesizing rayon. By age 12, he was easily reading college level chemistry text books. At Patty’s house in Golf Manor, she often found him in the morning asleep on the floor surrounded by encyclopedias and chemistry books. At age 14, he did the typical teenage synthesis of gunpowder, but quite atypically, moved on to synthesize nitroglycerine.

          Explosions and chemical messes became rather routine at the Hahn’s house. When one explosion pock-marked the walls of his room and destroyed the rug, Ken and Kathy insisted he remove his experiments to the basement.

     He did have a girlfriend named Heather. She was three years younger than he, and described him as “sweet and caring”. Heather’s mom had a slightly different take: “He was a nice kid and always presentable, but we had to tell him not to talk to anybody [at parties]. He could eat and drink but, for God’s sake, don’t talk to the guests about the food’s chemical composition.”

          David’s adventures with the Boy scouts included his penchant for experimentation. He appeared at one scout meeting with a distinctly orange face. He had ingested a “tanning” chemical, to investigate artificial methods of sun tanning. At one summer camp, a group of scouts blew a hole in the main tent when David’s powdered Magnesium exploded. He had brought it along to make some fireworks. The Chemistry Merit Badge quickly pinned itself to his list of achievements. But there was another, rather newer badge called “Atomic Energy” which he was pursuing. The Scoutmaster observed no other scout in troop 371 had ever been awarded this badge. (The badge requirements were later rewritten by Scout Headquarters and re-titled “Nuclear Energy”).

     The Scoutmaster’s wife noted that a typical kid working on this badge goes to a hospital and asks about x-rays. David decided to build a Breeder Reactor. This was perfectly logical to someone with a rather naive social awareness, accompanied by a passion for collecting all the Periodic Table Elements. Some of the elements David needed for his obsessive collection could only be created in a nuclear reactor. So why not build a (small) one?    

     Some of the man-made series had to be bombarded with neutrons to build higher atomic number elements. The process was called “irradiating”. David soon stated he wanted to irradiate as many substances as possible to produce new ones. How about building a Neutron Gun to do it?

     Some elements could be obtained from the splitting of heavy elements like Uranium into two smaller elements which were rare and unavailable otherwise. This “fission” process was accompanied by the appropriate release of quantities of energy. This was the same process which occurred during the detonation of an Atomic Weapon, but hopefully, on a much smaller scale. All David needed was a fissionable element like Uranium 235 or Thorium, or perhaps Plutonium.

     David wanted information from the scientists on a few questions he couldn’t answer. He wrote to government agencies, but they didn’t answer a simple inquiry. So he pretended to be a High School physics teacher, needing information on where to purchase fissionable materials for a classroom project. This wasn’t malicious on his part. It was just the next perhaps naïve, but logical step needed to get the information to fulfill his compulsive dream. They sent him tips on isolating certain radioactive elements. They send a list of fissionable isotopes. He wrote to a Czechoslovakian company which sells Pitchblende and Uranium Dioxide, and got sample quantities of both. He hammered the isotopes into powder, wanting to use an acid wash to isolate the Uranium. He couldn’t get Nitric Acid because it’s an ingredient for explosives. So David made his own. He heated saltpeter and sodium bisulfate, and bubbled the gas through water. But he couldn’t filter the Uranium out of the muddy substance which resulted.

          There were other problems. One evening Ken and Kathy were in the living room watching TV, when a large explosion shook the walls and floor of the house. Rushing down to the basement, they found David lying on the floor unconscious with his eyebrows smoking, and the basement strewn with broken equipment. David had been pounding a pyrophoric chemical with a screwdriver when it ignited spontaneously…

 (to be continued…)