A Calutron was a mass spectrometer used for separating the isotopes of uranium developed by Ernest O. Lawrence during the Manhattan Project and was similar to the Cyclotron invented by Lawrence. Its name is a concatenation of Cal. U.-tron, in tribute to the University of California, Lawrence's institution and the contractor of the Los Alamos laboratory. They were implemented for industrial scale uranium enrichment at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee Y-12 plant established during the war and provided much of the uranium used for the "Little Boy" nuclear weapon, which was dropped onto Hiroshima in 1945.
In a mass spectrometer, a vaporised quantity of a sample is bombarded with high energy electrons which causes them to become positively charged ions. They are then accelerated and subsequently deflected by magnetic fields. They then collide with a plate, producing a measurable electric current. The mass of the ions can be calculated according to the strength of the field and the charge of the ions.
To maximize the separation and the use of the required large electromagnet, multiple Calutrons were arranged around the magnet in a massive oval, which resembled (and were called) race tracks. Two types of Calutrons were created, known as Alpha and Beta, as the technology was improved. Magnetic separation was later abandoned in favor of the more complicated, but more effective, gaseous diffusion method. Due to the copper shortage during WWII, the electromagnets were made from thousands of tons of silver borrowed from the U.S. Treasury.
Most physicists in 1941 doubted that electromagnetic separation would succeed in practice because they expected that the mutual repulsion of the like-charged ions (the space charge effect) would prevent the formation of narrow beams. But Lawrence, who had seen a line of positively charged ions pour from his cyclotron, guessed that negative particles formed in the air kept the beam from dispersing under its own electrical influence. He had the 37-inch (94 cm) cyclotron modified to demonstrate the feasibility of electromagnetic separation of uranium isotopes using the principle of the mass spectrograph. "It will not be a calamity," he wrote Compton, if uranium turned out to have no military applications; but if "fantastically positive and we fail to get them first, the results for our country may well be a tragic disaster." By December 1941 the uranium ion beam was passing 5 microamperes to the collector; a small amount to be sure, but enough to assure Lawrence that space charge would not be a formidable problem.
The fact that beams of uranium ions could be defined well enough to yield small quantities of isotopes suitable for laboratory research by no means assured that electromagnetic separation could be worked on the industrial scale necessary to make a kilogram of 235U. The process has little to work on, only the slight difference in mass-1.25 percent-between uraniums 235 and 238. Because the lighter ions respond slightly more readily to the magnetic field than the heavier, their trajectories bend in a tighter arc. At the end of their semicircular travel, the ions of 235U are relatively more plentiful on the inside than on the outside of the beam. But the maximum separation even in the ideal case is small, only one-tenth inch for an arc with a diameter of 37 inches (94 cm). Actual beams are far from ideal.
Many technical problems had to be solved before even a prototype could be tested in the field of the nearly completed 184-inch (4.67 m) magnet. The beams, though small, could melt the collectors during long hours of operation; the staff therefore installed water cooling for the collectors and tank liner. They contrived electric arcs to ionize the uranium tetrachloride feed. They devised ways to extract the enriched uranium that collected at the receiver, and the still valuable feed material that condensed along with chloride "gunk" all over the inside of the tank. They made scrapers to clean the exit slits of the feed sources regularly lest the accumulated "crud" cut down beam strength. Lawrence's optimistic conclusion: by the fall of 1942 ten calutrons, each with a 100-milliampere source and all operating within the 184-inch field, would produce four grams of enriched uranium a day. The S-1 Uranium Committee that oversaw the uranium project for Office of Scientific Research and Development recommended expending $12 million to create a plant with 25 times that capacity before the fall of 1943. Lawrence did not doubt that other means, particularly reactor production of fissile plutonium, might ultimately be the most efficient way to a bomb. But in mid-1942 no reactor worked, and the calutron did.
The calutron design settled on in 1942, called "alpha," provided for enrichment of natural uranium to about 15 percent 235U. Extravagant effort went into designing powerful ion sources and aptly shaped, eventually parabolic collecting slots. The many modifications and security codes proliferated whimsical names: sources Plato, Cyclops, Bicyclops, and Goofy mated with receivers Gloria, Irene, Mona, or Zulu. Ions from Plato and his friends traversed an arc 48 inches (1.22 m) in radius to reach collector slits placed 0.6 inch (15 mm) apart. The guiding magnetic field was shimmed not by the old black art, but in obedience to calculations. Accurately machined and installed, the shims greatly increased the usable beam that reached the collectors.
The spring and early summer of 1943 brought hundreds of trainees to Berkeley from Tennessee- Eastman Company, the operator for the Oak Ridge plant. The Laboratory labored to ensure that the test XA magnet system and alpha units were working by April in spite of delays in delivery of steel. Between April and July the training sessions ran continuously. In June a migration that by 1944 would reach 200 started for Oak Ridge. Laboratory expenditures exceeded half a million dollars a month.
The first wave of Berkeley workers at Oak Ridge had to see that the XAX magnet worked. Then runs could begin on the first production system, or "racetrack;" a 24-fold magnification of the XA that could hold 96 calutron alpha tanks. To minimize magnetic losses and steel consumption, the assembly was curved into an oval 122 feet (37 m) long, 77 feet (23 m) wide and 15 feet (4.6 m) high. Want of copper for the large coils to produce the magnetic fields prompted a solution possible only in wartime: Groves drafted 14,700 tons (13,300 tonne) of pure silver from a government vault for the purpose. Late in the summer of 1943 the XAX was ready for testing. After a week of difficulty, it cleared the hurdle for full-scale racetrack runs.
The first two of five projected racetracks started up in November and failed from contaminated cooling oil; the second was limping in January, but produced 200 grams of uranium enriched to 12 percent 235U by the end of February 1944, its fifth of the total goal of one kilogram of enriched uranium per month. By April four racetracks were functioning, including the repaired number 1. They required constant attention. Many people from the Laboratory helped modify the units to reach production goals.
The calutrons were initially operated by scientists from Berkeley to remove bugs and achieve a reasonable operating rate. Then Tennessee Eastman operators who had only a high school education took over. Kenneth Nichols compared unit production data, and pointed out to Ernest Lawrence that the young “hill-billy” girl operators were outproducing his Ph.Ds. They agreed to a production race and Lawrence lost, a morale boost for the Tennessee Eastman workers and supervisors. The girls were trained like soldiers not to reason why, while “the scientists could not refrain from time-consuming investigation of the cause of even minor fluctuations of the dials” Responsibility for operation passed entirely to Tennessee Eastman after the spring of 1944, and the Laboratory staff at Oak Ridge turned their attention to redesigning the calutron system for higher efficiency.
The gaseous diffusion procedure for separation of uranium isotopes, which had consumed more money even than the calutron, had not met its design goals by late 1944. Groves decided that it could not be counted on to produce high enrichment, and that whatever it did produce would have to be supplemented with other slightly enriched uranium and processed through beta calutrons. To augment the calutron feed, the Manhattan Engineering District constructed still another plant at Oak Ridge, this one working by thermal diffusion, a method developed by Philip Abelson.