Thursday, November 01, 2012 ... Deutsch/Español/Related posts from blogosphere

Edward Teller's great H-day: 60 years ago

Ivy Mike released 188 times more energy than Hurricane Sandy
Update: All claims below based on the Sandy energy numbers are wrong and reflecting a temporary credulity and stupidity of mine. See comments for some discussion

Hungarian-Jewish-American physicist Edward Teller had a great day exactly 60 years ago, on November 1st, 1952. For some years, he's been working on an idea originally due to the great physics guru Enrico Fermi (most likely, and one invented in Summer 1942) which totally fascinated him: a bomb getting its energy from thermonuclear fusion.

While fission only releases about \(0.001E=0.001mc^2\) from some mass, fusion is able to get to \(0.01E=0.01mc^2\), one percent of the total latent energy, and it may employ as omnipresent "fuels" as hydrogen.

See the explosion here – the blast (the "Mike shot") takes place at 4:39 – or here at 1:40. There's also a one-hour 1952 program where the explosion occurs at 40:47. Is it just me who feels that the 1950s Americans sound more British? ;-)

Ivy Mike, the pioneering device based on the Teller-Ulam design, was finally ready for detonation on the Enewetak Atoll (atoll = coral island encircling a lagoon) in the Pacific Ocean: Google Maps, crater (yes, the Elugelab [codenamed Flora] island in the the atoll [not the whole atoll whose radius is 15 km!] ceased to exist and was filled with water; before, after, source).

This device was one of the main reasons we have had peace for many and many decades; Edward Teller should have clearly gotten the Peace Nobel Prize that was jokingly given to the "European Union". How strong was the explosion? And how did the device work?

At the center of the device, there was a cylindrical rod of plutonium, the "sparkplug", that had the task to ignite the fusion reaction. It was surrounded by a natural five-ton uranium "tamper". The external side of the tamper was made of a mixture of lead and polyethylene and these sheets were sending X-rays from the primary to the secondary. The X-rays acted by their huge pressure and temperature.

All the lead, plutonium, and uranium stuff was there just to help the primary actor that was being tested – the cryogenic (=impractical for mobile bombs) liquid deuterium fuel at the very center (plus some tritium) – to get a bit excited and warmed up.

The whole active object, also named "sausage", was encapsulated in 25-30 centimeter thick steel. This whole toy was 54 tons heavy, 619 cm tall, and 203 cm in diameter. With other external components, Ivy Mike weighed over 80 tons (again, that's why it was impractical for mobile weapons). When it exploded, it produced 10-12 megatons of TNT but 77% came from the fission of the uranium "temper" (about 450 kg out of 4.5 tons of the uranium was "burned" releasing the equivalent of almost 8 megatons of TNT) but the remaining 23% may be attributed to fusion. The fireball was 5 km wide and the mushroom went to 17 km altitude in 90 seconds and 30 km in 150 seconds.

Note that 10 megatons of TNT is about 41.84 petajoules i.e. \(41.84\times 10^{15}\,{\rm J}\). Via \(E=mc^2\), that's equivalent to the complete destruction of 0.47 kilograms of matter. Take one-quarter of it (for fusion) and multiply it by 100 to see that about a kilogram of hydrogen was turned mostly into helium or new tritium (and other things).

Via Nuclear Secrecy.COM.

Alexander Ač told us about the energy stored in the otherwise mediocre Hurricane Sandy. His source states that Sandy "contained" – whatever it exactly meant – 0.222 petajoules of energy. It's only larger than the analogous numbers for other, stronger storms because Sandy's figure includes the wind energy from a larger area. If you know how to divide numbers, you can easily calculate that Ivy Mike released the same energy as 188 times the Hurricane Sandy. And it was pretty much produced by one right-wing physicist. That's a simple quantitative explanation why you shouldn't expect right-wing physicists to be overly impressed by the energy of the Hurricane Sandy. ;-)

But if the worshipers of the greenhouse effect and its hypothetical but indefensible effects on the weather events feel humiliated, and they surely should because they are, let me calm them down just a little bit. The research project initiated in 1951 that led to Ivy Mike had a nice name: the Greenhouse. :-D

(Yes, I needed Ivy Mike whose energy was equivalent to 750 Hiroshimas. Hiroshima wasn't enough to beat Sandy; it released about 1/4 of Sandy's energy. On the other hand, NYC rats are stronger than Sandy.)

The crater created by the blast was 3 km wide and 60 meters deep. 80 million tons of rocks were vaporized. The blast didn't proceed as expected – it was two times better i.e. stronger. One pilot who was supposed to pick some air samples died when he ran out of fuel. All elements including Einsteinium and Fermium were produced. A 50-kilometer vicinity of the atoll was substantially radioactively contaminated. You don't want to play with similar toys in the New York City; Sandy is just fine.

Harry Truman who politically supervised the research wasn't the only one. At that time, the Soviets were already working on something similar although their research was arguably not quite independent. Sakharov's Third Idea – the Slavic term for the Teller-Ulam design – got tested in 1955, three years after Ivy Mike (6 times lower yield than Ivy Mike). But already in 1953, one year after Ivy Mike, the USSR tested Joe 4 (0.4 megatons of TNT, 25 times smaller than Ivy Mike) based on a different "Sloika" philosophy. The strongest (thermonuclear or otherwise) man-made explosion ever (so far?) was the Tsar Bomba in 1961. At 57 megatons of TNT, it was 5 times stronger than Ivy Mike and 1,000 times stronger than Hurricane Sandy. Take it, Yankees and weather alarmists. ;-)

Hat tip:

P.S.: Just a comment on the energy vs world energy consumption. The Ivy Mike blast may look very large and you could think that it would be great to use it as a generator of energy. But I mentioned that the blast released \(4\times 10^{16}\) joules of energy. It's a lot but the world's annual energy consumption is around \(4\times 10^{20}\) joules so you would have to tame 10,000 Ivy-Mike-like blasts a year to replace the existing sources of energy! But you could imagine it's doable. Forget about peaceful thermonuclear power plants and use a blast to raise a lot of matter to some altitude, or heat it, or something like that. 30 such Ivy Mike blasts a day may produce the electricity for the whole mankind. ;-)

Add to Digg this Add to reddit

snail feedback (32) :

reader Luke Lea said...

Dear Lubos, Did I read correctly that two-thirds of the energy released in that first explosion was from the uranium (8 megatons) and only one-third from the hydrogen?

reader Luboš Motl said...

Yup, it could have been 3/4 or 4/5, too.

reader AJ said...

Would the destruction of 0.47 kilograms of matter generate a detectable gravity wave? I can picture an experiment with two satellites orbiting one another. One an H-bomb and the other a mini-LIGO. Most likely nonsense, but thought I'd ask anyway.

reader SOYLENT GREEN said...

As I recall, Teller was stuck with same unworkable "layer cake" idea Sakarov tried later. It was Stan Ulam who hit on the idea of using the X-rays to ignite the fuel. Teller was a better salesman than physicist--comparatively speaking.
Ted Taylor--he knew a thing or two about weapons design.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Soylent Green, I don't know anything for sure - it's a history and mostly muddy one - but I don't find your version of the history likely. It contradicts Teller's account.

In 1999, Teller told a reporter:

I contributed; Ulam did not. I'm sorry I had to answer it in this abrupt way. Ulam was rightly dissatisfied with an old approach. He came to me with a part of an idea which I already had worked out and difficulty getting people to listen to. He was willing to sign a paper. When it then came to defending that paper and really putting work into it, he refused. He said, "I don't believe in it."

Of course, it may be a distortion or a downright lie from Teller. However, I find it vastly more likely – also because of my own experience that speaks an extremely clear language – that the left-wing environment around physics preferred untrue story that take some credit or lots of credit from a conservative physicist.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear AJ, a great question. My guess is No. You know, it's not really destroyed - because of the mass/energy conservation. The mass is just moved around, at most by a few miles in the H-bomb case, except for the energy in the radiation that goes away by the speed of light and would probably disturb any LIGO-like system more strongly than the gravitational wave that would be moving almost simultaneously with the gamma rays.

Moreover, I think that those 0.47 kg are just too little.

Note that you may visualize gravitational waves in the Newtonian language - as the changing gravitational field. And here we're literally talking about the gravitational field created by 0.47 kg of matter. This is negligible if you're a few miles from it, isn't it? Gravitational wave is comparably strong as the oscillating gravitational field from the same mass being there, not being there, being there, and so on. But the gravitational field from 0.47 kg can't be detected from several miles, I think.

So my guess is that by far, it would be undetectable by gravitational wave detectors.

reader thejollygreenman said...

Hi Lubos,

Lovely article, but I am sure we are missing something here. You state that 80 million tonnes of rock was vaporised. Now in my book, vaporised means turned into gas. As one of the most common elements of sand is silica, a lot of silica gas was generated, hardly likely. Shouldn't the term to describe the fragmentation of the rock into dust sized particles be powderization and the action as the rock was powderized??

reader thejollygreenman said...

Hi Lubos,

Another word that would suit the bill is pulverized, beaten to dust. Anything but vaporized!

reader scooby said...

I was looking at the Wikipedia page that you linked in your post. It's interesting how they solved the problem of measuring the radiation flux, using detectors housed in a bunker on another island and connected to the test site by a 2.7km plywood tube filled with helium ballonets.

reader aaron said...

Lubos, what do you think of Kevin Trenbeth's assertion that as much as 10% of Sandy's power could have been from global warming?

He's a rather respected climate researcher. He's allowed this quote to go uncontested in many major publications. Can he ever be taken seriously again?

reader scooby said...

Also if the source is purely spherical, would you see a gravitational wave at all? You need a quadrupole component in the energy-momentum tensor...

reader scooby said...

Also, if the source is purely spherical, would you see a gravitational wave at all? You need a quadrupole component of the energy-momentum tensor..

reader scooby said...

Oops, apologies for posting twice!

reader Matthias said...

Dear Lubos,

even without doing some intensive research on the 'energy content' of hurricanes (whatever that means exactly) you should have realized that something is wrong with your estimate. Even if all the energy released by a hydrogen bomb goes into the shockwave, you wouldn't feel a storm 1500 miles away. On the other hand Sandy produced storm-force winds within that radius for days. If you check more reliable sources (e.g. ), you will see that the energy released by hurricanes is several orders of magnitude larger than what you get out of a nuke.

reader Gene said...


You should know better than to trust Alexander Ac’s numbers. His energy value for Sandy is too low by about seven orders of magnitude. Recall that Sandy covered around 5 million sq. km. and lasted for about one week. The heat continuously released though water condensation (rainfall) alone for such an enormous storm is about 2 x 10^15 watts and it continued for 6x10^5 seconds, giving 1.2 x 10^21 joules or 1.2 million petajoules. That’s a significant error.

Of course a similar but slightly smaller amount of energy is absorbed as all that water is evaporated but most of that heat comes from the sea, which gets cooled down a bit. The net difference, which accounts for Sandy’s destructive power is just a fraction of these huge numbers but its integrated energy still well beyond that of any nuclear bomb. You really don’t want to mess with mother nature.

reader Gene said...

The Hiroshima bomb annihilated about one gram of material out of an initial charge of 10,000+ grams of uranium. This corresponds to a bit under one percent efficiency; i.e., ninety-nine+ percent of the uranium was wasted. The beauty in utilizing a fusion secondary is that a one percent fission yield can be upped to about twenty-five percent. This is because nuclear fusion can produce a far more powerful implosion than any mere chemical arrangement. This contains the fission charge until a significant fraction of the fissionable nuclei have split. Thermal expansion inevitably renders most of the fissile mass sub-critical, even with fusion assist.

reader Luke Lea said...

Thanks, Gene.

reader Luboš Motl said...

No, Matthias, you haven't demonstrated any mistake in Alexander Ač - and indirectly my - source because it talked about the energy "contained" in the hurricane (whichever terms are counted, the word "contain" clearly means a one-moment snapshot) while Landsea's page that you linked above tries to count the energy "again and again" as the winds are generated and dissipated.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Gene, thanks for the info. Yes, I shouldn't have trusted Alexander's numbers for a second. However, it may still talk about a different thing, "energy content", while Landsea at Matthias' link below and yourself talk about the "continuous release" of energy, so you effectively count a significant fraction of the incoming solar energy that drives it as it is integrated over a long time.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Tx for the fix, Matthias. Good that readers fix bad stupidities sometimes.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I accidentally used the same figure as a working hypothesis here:

I think that "global warming" actually decreases the rate and strength of hurricanes, as it reduces the pole-equator differences, but 10% in either way is the magnitude that "could be real" because it's hard to detect such changes. If it's real and if the global CO2 emitters (current and past ones!) were collectively asked to pay for 10% of damages caused by Sandy, it would make virtually no difference in their finances (unlike the CO2-regulating policies). They would pay 2 or 3 or 4 billions and that's it.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

For a detailed history of the fusion bomb, see "Dark Sun" by Richard Rhodes. This is the sequel to his Pulitzer prizewinning book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", which Robert Serber called worthy of Milton :)

Basically, I disagree mostly with both your characterization of Oppenheimer and Teller. Hans Bethe,
and many others were disgusted and appalled at Teller's testimony against Oppenheimer. It was a way of removing a hated rival. Oppenheimer appointed Bethe head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos thereby earning Teller's enmity. And his opposition to development of the H bomb post-Los Alamos sealed the deal.

reader AJ said...

Thanks Lubos. I wonder if this setup might be able to test the speculative idea about communication between parallel universes? Have the explosion triggered by a quantum event such as radioactive decay (ala Schrödinger's cat). In this experiment I could imagine that the sensor could be attached to the bomb, since the other forces might not get in the way. Maybe the sensors used in past tests were capable of picking up pre-explosion signals?

Sorry for my ramblings.

reader Luboš Motl said...

If such communication between parallel universes were possible, that would be quite something! ;-) I would be proved wrong, and so on. And so would be Einstein, by the way.

reader SOYLENT GREEN said...

Yes, people definitely tried to get back at Teller for testifying against Oppenheimer. I suppose that story I heard was just one of many. But then he seemed to spend the rest of his life trying to find "something useful" the H Bomb could do. He tried using it for natural gas recovery--worked great, except the gas was too radioactive to use. One of his last ideas was a one-shot gamma ray laser to shot down Soviet missiles--focus all the gamma rays on the target before the Thermonuclear blast destroyed the weapon. Ah, the days of SDI.

BTW, love the pumpkins.

reader AJ said...

Thanks Lubos... guess I've watched one too many PBS specials :)

reader Gene said...

Edward Teller has always stirred up heated emotions both pro and con. I am mostly con but there is no question that Teller was a major proponent in the development of fusion technology. I think it would have happened anyway but the thought of not having the technology in a world in which the Soviets did have it is just terrifying.

My twin brother happened to know one of the principle physicists involved in the design of modern warheads at Los Alamos. I won’t mention this guy’s name publicly but his opinion was that Teller was a complete idiot and set the program back by several years.

It is very common, of course, for physicists, when they disagree, to describe each other in such terms so one should always be circumspect. It may be relevant that Teller thought that Fleishmann and Pons were “--onto something --“ with their cold fusion claims. Teller used these exact words a full two weeks after Fleishmann and Pons went public. It was also obvious that Teller was arrogant and extremely ambitious so I am not inclined to give him credit for much technology development. His harpooning of Oppenheimer can be viewed as personal ambition or as love of country but I am convinced that ambition played a role.

You have, no doubt, heard the engineer’s mantra : You can get credit or you can get it done; you cannot do both.

This is true.

reader Gene said...

Dear Lubos,
You do not have stupidities, my friend. On rare occasions you may exhibit a bit of carelessness but those occasions are rare, indeed. Most people, including me, outscore you by five or ten to one in that department. At least.
You are also in a position where your every expressed thought is scrutinized by scores of folks. Most of us are not so exposed to close examination, thank God.

reader Gene said...

Since Katrina the number of tropical depressions per year in the eastern Atlantic has increased but the fraction that have grown into hurricanes has decreased by a larger factor, i.e. there have been fewer hurricanes. The statistics are far from conclusive but the forecasts of increased hurricane incidence are, so far, quite wrong.

reader Michael Gersh said...

The 40s and 50s were so quaint. Physics and espionage, so exciting in retrospect. In the end, what most civilians do not understand is that for the last few decades it has been understood that nuclear explosions have no military use. That is why the great powers have largely agreed to stand down the majority of their nuclear strike forces, same as bio and chemical weapons. The object of war is to win; while these weapons offer no clear path to victory, they DO offer extremely heavy risks.

reader Leonard Weinstein said...

Cold fusion of the normal sort may not be what Fleishmann and Pons discovered, it may be a transmutation due to Hydrogen fusing with a higher element such as Nickel to produce a higher atomic weight material. However, it is now reasonably well established (but some still have doubts) that there is a reaction, and it does produce large excess energy. You appear to not be aware of progress in this field. Teller appears to have been correct.

reader andres roy said...

Hi Luboš,

I loved reading this piece! Well written!

Merlen Hogg

(function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i['GoogleAnalyticsObject']=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,'script','//','ga'); ga('create', 'UA-1828728-1', 'auto'); ga('send', 'pageview');