The Huemul Project was a secret project proposed by the German scientist of Austrian origin Ronald Richter to the government of Argentina during the first presidency of Juan Domingo Peron. In 1948, Richter convinced Peron that he could produce nuclear fusion energy before any other country based in a lithium-deuterium nuclear reaction. The present state of the art in fusion research is for example, the $12 billion ITER multinational project, which uses a tokamak-like configuration to reach and maintain the high temperatures and plasma densities needed for fusion . The initial temperatures achieved by Richter's device were orders of magnitude lower, and too low for producing fusion events at a rate high enough to obtain higher temperatures.
Already during World War II German scientists under Walther Gerlach and Kurt Diebner carried out large experiments to explore the possibility to induce thermonuclear reactions in deuterium with high explosive-driven convergent shock waves, following Guderley's famous convergent shock wave solution. At the same time Richter proposed in a memorandum to German government officials to induce nuclear fusion reactions through shock waves by high-velocity particles shot in a highly compressed deuterium plasma contained in an ordinary uranium vessel. The proposal was not carried through See Rainer Karlsch, ''Hitler's Bomb.
Late in 1949 construction of the laboratories in Huemul Island (Isla Huemul'' in the Nahuel Huapi Lake), was initiated. In March 1951 Richter informed Peron that the experiments had been successful and the government announced on March 24 1951:
"On February 16, 1951, in the... Isla Huemul... thermonuclear reactions under controlled conditions were performed on a technical scale."
Richter's claim to have achieved fusion was wrong. It is hard at present to analyze his ideas because he never published them in the peer reviewed literature. In other failed attempts, such as the British claim that fusion had been achieved with the Zeta device, the published results could be used for further progress. The subsequent worldwide race over controlled fusion research was in part triggered by these press announcements.
The generation of excess energy by controlled fusion is still an open problem.
After the announcement, and because of delays in Richter's work to pass from the 'technical scale' to the 'industrial scale' a group of Argentine scientists was appointed to study the merit of the project. This group, including physicist Jose Antonio Balseiro and engineer Mario Bancora, concluded that Richter's claims were unfounded. Balseiro's calculations and Bancora's analysis of the experiment, convinced government officials that this method of attaining fusion was unsuitable.
The government appointed physicists Richard Gans and Antonio Rodriguez to review the response by Richter to the report of the first commission. This second group of experts endorsed the findings of the first review panel and found Richter's response inadequate. In view of these findings, the Huemul Project was closed in 1952. Richter had grossly underestimated the technical difficulties of achieving controlled fusion and had erroneously interpreted the results of his experiments.
In 1948 Argentina was in a good economic position, following a large trade surplus after World War II, so economic resources were available for the Huemul Project. The amount spent is precisely known thanks to a report written by Dr. Teofilo Isnardi et al., published in 1958. After the fall of Peron's government in September 1955, opponents to Peron painted a value for the budget of the project in a wall of Richter's Laboratory No. 4 claiming that the total expenses were 62 million pesos (the amount stated in Isnardi's report), which at that time represented approximately $7 million, or about 140 times the amount allocated by the U.S. government soon after the Argentine announcement . A recent estimate has been published by M. Cardona et al., in their biography of Falicov (see references). They state that the total cost of the project was equivalent to $300 million in 2003 dollars.
This amount is small compared to the expenditures made by other nations in later efforts, but it is significant because it credits Argentina as the first country to give official support to a nuclear fusion program for peaceful purposes.
Today, the Huemul island with the ruins of the historic facilities (at ), can be visited by tourists. It is reached by boat from the port of Bariloche.
Guderley, G., 1942, Luftfahrforschung 19, 302.
Mariscotti, Mario, 1985, El Secreto Atomico de Huemul: Cronica del Origen de la Energia Atomica en la Argentina, Sudamericana/Planeta, Buenos Aires, Argentina ISBN 950-37-0109-0
Mariscotti, Mario. El secreto atomico de Huemul, 3. ed. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Estudio Sigma, c1996. 286 p. : ill. ; 23 cm. ISBN 950-9446-24-6
Mariscotti, M., 2004, El secreto Atomico de Huemul, Ed. Estudio Sigma, Buenos Aires.
Falicov's biography National Academy of Sciences: Biographical Memoirs, VOL 83, 2003, THE NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Lopez Davalos A. , Badino N., 2000 J. A. Balseiro: Cronica de una ilusion, Fondo de Cultura Economica de Argentina, ISBN 950-557-357-X.
Reports of Balseiro and Bancora (1952) in English.
Balseiro's Report (1952) PDF - Spanish
Bancora's Report(1952)- Spanish]
Lopez Davalos, Arturo y Badino, Norma (1988). Antecedentes Historicos del Instituto Balseiro - Spanish
Horacio Luis Varela: Litio: Materia Prima para la Tecnologia de la Fusion Termonuclear (1997) Spanish
Mic. Ramon Reges: Proyecto Huemul (1999) Spanish
Guillermo Gimenez de Castro: La quimera atomica de Richter (2004) Spanish
From Physics Today
Juan G. Roederer. Article (2003)
More on the Value of Ronald Richter's Work
Santos Mayo, Friedwardt Winterberg. Letters (2004)
Javier Luzuriaga. Letter (2005)
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