Particle physics experiments

Mysterious radioactive cubes found around the United States are likely Nazi experiments


You know how in Captain America: The First Avenger There is a Nazi organization that tries to harness the power of a mysterious glowing cube in order to create a weapon of mass destruction that will dominate their enemies, only to have their efforts sabotaged by Allied forces and their cube to end up in an underground American research center after the defeat of the Axis?

Did you know this happened for real?

Of course, it wasn’t an Infinity Stone that fueled Nazi research – it was uranium. The cubes, which numbered over 1,000, also didn’t end up in a secure SHIELD facility while waiting for various Avengers to assemble. In fact, they’re done… well, no one is quite sure, actually – but thanks to exciting new research in nuclear forensics, a team at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is getting closer to an answer.

“[It’s] not only a really fun science project and a set of science experiments, but also a bit of a history project, ”explained PNNL researcher Brittany Robertson, presenting the results at the American Chemical fall meeting. Society this week.

“We are looking for different pieces of information and archived information and even… letters written between scientists, to try to understand what we can measure and how we can actually make interpretations.”

Since the early 1940s, the Nazis and the United States have been in a race to discover nuclear technology. The United States had the Manhattan Project (and we all know how it happened), and the Nazis had Werner Heisenberg – “like the Heisenberg, like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, ”laughs Robertson. “Heisenberg”. – and Kurt Diebner. At the heart of the research were these two-inch-long, nearly pure uranium cubes: the hope was to harness nuclear fission to turn them into plutonium, creating an atomic bomb.

A replica of the Nazis’ failed attempt at a nuclear reactor. Image credit: ArtMechanic, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, the program was halted before it could succeed, and the Allies confiscated many cubes after the war. But their fate after that is quite murky: around 600 were shipped to the United States, but only about 12 are known today, with the rest being used in the American nuclear project, sold to private collectors and research institutes. , or simply lost in the haze of time.

Even for the cubes that we know of, the provenance tends to be a mystery. The origins of the cube at PNNL are unknown, lead researcher Jon Schwantes said, with no one knowing how it even got to the lab. In fact, he explained, the team’s first job was to confirm that the cube was even part of the Nazi nuclear program.

“We don’t know for sure that the cubes are from the German program, so we want to establish it first,” Schwantes said. “Then we want to compare the different cubes to see if we can categorize them based on the particular research group. [Heisenberg or Diebner] who created them.

Robertson with the PNNL cube. Image credit: Andrea Starr / PNNL

For the record, the cube at PNNL is a Heisenberg cube, but “[w]We had no real metrics to back up this claim, ”Robertson explained. To prove the origin of the cube, she turned to radiochronometry, a technique that dates radioactive materials by measuring their degree of decay. For Nazi cubes, this meant measuring the relative levels of uranium, which they were originally made of, compared to thorium and protactinium, into which they would decay over time.

Then there is the coating of the cube, which Nazi scientists used to protect the cubes from oxidation. Oddly enough for a supposed Heisenberg cube, the PNNL cube is coated with styrene – Diebner’s preferred material.

“We are curious whether this particular cube was one of those associated with the two research programs,” Schwantes said. “In addition, this is an opportunity for us to test our science before applying it in a real nuclear forensic investigation. “

Other cubes have equally mysterious origins: the PNNL team worked in conjunction with the University of Maryland, which has its own cube – one that “found its way” to the department with a note saying “Taken from reactor that Hitler tried to build. Gift of Ninninger. But if knowing that there are a few hundred uranium cubes lost out there is worrisome, remember: it’s better than the alternative.

“I’m glad the Nazi program wasn’t as advanced as they wanted it to be at the end of the war,” Robertson said. “[B]Because otherwise the world would be a very different place.