Oral History Transcript — Dr. Arthur Kantrowitz
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Arthur Kantrowitz; October 30, 1984
ABSTRACT: This short interview chiefly concerns Avco-Everett Research Laboratoryís gas dynamic laser (Mid-1960s and after) and its laser isotope separation project.
Kantrowitz: ... Pentek, with a kind of leading theorist around the laboratory. And he eventually took over the direction of the laboratory after I retired.
Bromberg: Oh, is he now the ?
Kantrowitz: No. He didnít get along with the powers that be and he left, so He didnít last very long in that position. But he was very important in the early sears of the laser business.
Bromberg: Now, you said a little bit about the development of the 50 kilowatt laser, that it was begun by DuPontís interests.
Kantrowitz: Yes, that just led to the commercialization of it. But we treated the commercialization in a cavalier manner. We just said, ďOK, it they want to buy it, weíll make a few of them and sell them, as long as we can make a profit on it.Ē But it was not an important part of our business.
Bromberg: Now, whit about this 200 kilowatt nitrogen laser?
Kantrowitz: I think that was peak performance of some sort. I donít remember that We sold anything. You understand that the nitrogen laser, as we made it for commercial use, was not a fast-flow laser, so that it couldnít, it pulsed rather slowly. I donít remember the pulse rate but it wasnít very fast and the result was that the average power of these lasers was not very great. I donít remember just how rapidly they pulsed, but it might have been, they only turned on for a very short time, I think 10 microseconds?
Bromberg: Well, then, weíre almost ready for question 8. We really did questions 4 and 5.
Kantrowitz: Well, let me just talk about what we did with and APA on this.
We were very well known to those people by that time, mostly for our work in reóentry, and highly respect for that, too highly respected. So I called them up one day and I said, ďLook, weíve made an important advance in lasers, arid I think it ought to be classified. According to the rules.Ē
So, I donít remember how, but we told them roughly what we had in mind, with the gas dynamic laser, and somebody, and I donít remember his name, called me back and he said, ďWe looked in the big book of classified items and it isnít there, so itís not classified.Ē
Bromberg: You donít remember who you called?
Kantrowitz: Somebody at ARPA. I donít remember the name.
Bromberg: Thatís wonderful (crosstalk)
Kantrowitz: So that was how come, ARPAís presentation was private, because I said, ďOK, this is too silly, Iím going to declare that itís proprietary then.Ē
So that presentation was private, but there was a room packed full of people, you know, because it had gotten around that we had something important to announce by that time. The room was packed.
Charlie Townes was one of the people there, and he had an airplane to catch, as I remember it, and he had to leave right in the middle of the presentation. But what he did is, he stood up and walked to the door and then he didnít leave. Because — Until he understood exactly what we had to say.
Of course, the idea was, it suddenly made it possible to make lasers of any power you like.
And that resulted — you know, when I say power you want to understand that this is average power. Pulsed lasers such as you have with a ruby or the nitrogen laser produce a lot of power but only for microseconds or nanoseconds, or sometimes even pico seconds, you see. When I talk about power, Iím talking about average power. Thatís why theyíre called high energy lasers, because they produce the power for a long time.
Bromberg: OK. Now, here is Seidel saying that heís Ďheard that Culver and IDA and ARPA representatives were first cool to the idea. Do you remember what happened at that meeting?
Kantrowitz: Well, you know, the interesting thing was that there were people there who were not, who didnít understand the importance of what we were saying.
Bromberg: I see. So Townes understood that —
Kantrowitz: Oh, Townes understood it, and the man no was head of that part of ARPA at the time. He later became Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Iíve forgotten his name. Iíll remember it after a while. He understood it and ARPA understood it immediately. But people just wouldnít believe it for a long time.
Bromberg: Culver, was he a doubter?
Kantrowitz: I donít remember him at all.
But I do remember that people wouldnít believe it for a very long time, and the result was that they appointed committees to come here and find out what was wrong with it. And we naturally had a record of all those committees. So after about six months following this meeting, I asked the receptionist how many committees came to discuss the gas dynamic laser here. It turned out there were 36 different committees.
Bromberg: And where were these coming from? All from APRA and IDA?
Kantrowitz: All from all parts of the Defense establishment. There was a National Academy committee that was appointed to come here, and find out what was wrong with this.
Bromberg: Do you remember any of the arguments those doubters made?
Kantrowitz: No, they didnít have any arguments. There just wouldnít believe it. It was a very different principle for making a laser. The mechanism for excitation was so different. All you took was a fairly hot gas and expanded it and it lased. It was a very different idea.
Bromberg: Now, they already had Hertzbergís article out.
Kantrowitz: That didnít, I think people knew that that didnít work.
Bromberg: I see. So it really wasnít that they were cool, it was just that they didnít think it was going to work.
Kantrowitz: Right. Itís the classic story of people — when you say, ďNow, hereís something importantĒ — that it involved an art that laser people were completely unfamiliar with.
Now, Hertzberg came to that mixture of arts as my student, you see. But I donít think there was anybody else in the group. The laser experts came from physics, and didnít know anything about fluid mechanics.
To understand how a gas dynamic laser worked, you had to understand something about fluid mechanics.
That was very difficult, and weíve never had as much trouble selling a really good new idea as that one. When we had an established reputation, it was very clear — as I say, it was somewhat overstated at the time, I think I mean, because of our work in reentry. For a while after the re-entry business, we couldnít do anything wrong. You know.
Bromberg: There was nobody in the gas dynamic business who —
Kantrowitz: — they didnít understand about lasers.
Bromberg: I see. So itís really that problem of falling between these two disciplines.
Kantrowitz: Itís exactly that. And that was really what this laboratory was created to do, the re-entry business. And lasers — that was really the third time it worked. The second time was MHD generators.
Bromberg: On this other point that Bob brings up about the Soviets scientists working on gas dynamic lasers, did that get into the picture? I mean —
Kantrowitz: — not until later. We didnít discover that until oh, I donít know, six or eight months after we were into this business.
Bromberg: Because if the Russians are doing it, thatís always — at least in the sixties —
Kantrowitz: Thatís always — now, there was something that Basov did, and I really donít know whether we should publish this or not. But let me just tell you. Take it off for a minuteÖ
Well, after the 36 committees, finally the decision, it suddenly appeared in Washington that this was for real. And it was an absolutely amazing thing that happened. We couldnít get any support. It was all done on this internal R and D business that I was telling you about. We couldnít get any support from anybody until suddenly they all decided it was for real, and the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and ARPA competed to see who could get us under contract first! Suddenly.
Bromberg: What happened, did they all come down to you and say —?
Kantrowitz: Later at night somebody came, ďWouldnít you please accept our —?Ē
Bromberg: Does that mean you started to beef up the group that was working on this?
Kantrowitz: Oh yes, of course. But that wasnít stopping us. Now, we had very, the only evidence we had that it could be made to work was various — we couldnít catch airplanes on fire or something, you know. It was that we had a mirror and we burned a hole in the mirror, you know, so that it — but it was a teeny hole. It was that kind of — but that taught us that there was maybe a lot of power, we didnít know how much, you see. But it was, so that it was evidence that required a certain amount of sophistication to appreciate.
Bromberg: Was this the evidence that sent all these committees after you?
Kantrowitz: No, it was the presentation. The presentation. It kind of stuck in their craw, that here I was saying something and nobody could shoot it down and it was obviously an important thing.
Bromberg: So you presented it and then they just tried to look at it and after a while —
Kantrowitz: — I think it was a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do. It just took too long. And instead of — you see, the trouble was, there wasnít anybody that they could send up here that understood all the art. Well, there might have been, you know, two or three people in the country, but they didnít latch onto them. And they just, the process of criticism was slow, expensive, irritating. I mean, I donít object to the idea that we should have stood for the sharpest kind of questioning they could get, but the way they did it was clumsy.
Bromberg: Now, if you presented this in February and you say it took them about six months of these committees, then should I be getting the idea that by the end of Ď66, they began to court you in this fashion?
Kantrowitz: — no, it just took one night, one day. When they changed their minds, —
Bromberg: Thatís right. When was that?
Kantrowitz: I donít remember exactly. It was about six months, is my recollection. They suddenly changed their minds and they wanted it, right now. And they all wanted it competitively.
Bromberg: Did you get contracts with all three of them then?
Kantrowitz: No. No, no, we couldnít do that, because what we had in mind to do cost something like I think a halt a million dollars, and we didnít, we just wanted somebody to fund it.
Bromberg: So which agency did fund this?
Kantrowitz: I think it was ARPA. Iím not positive but I think it was ARPA. Arid then the thing that happened, this was most interesting — was it ARPA or was it the Air Force? Iím not sure about who funded that. Of course, that is in the records and it could be dug out if itís important to you.
Anyway, what happened next is that they established a special access secrecy system for this called 8th card. And that was — you know what a special access system is?
Bromberg: No, I donít.
Kantrowitz: Having a general clearance of any classification doesnít get you in there.
Bromberg: Itís different from just having ďa need to knowĒ?
Bromberg: I see.
Kantrowitz: So they established this, and at first, I remember the first presentation that we were supposed to make after that was established as at a Columbia, a laboratory maintained by Columbia University, some place up near New York, and so I went there to give the presentation one day, and the guard at the door told me, ďNo, youíre not cleared for it.Ē
ďNo, youíre not cleared for it.Ē
So the people who had organized the meeting got on the telephone to Washington, and my name got added to the list, so then I could go in and make the presentation.
Now, the purpose of that classification was to keep it away from the other services. It was purely inter-service rivalry. And it was, it is one of the things that taught me about the applications of secrecy within the bureaucracy.
As I told you, according to the rules of secrecy, to me, it should have been classified, to start with, and I acted to protect that. But the notion that it should be kept from sister services is kind of wrong, I thought.
Bromberg: By the way, did the mentors have any special intellectual role in these contracts? Youíve got the contract and youíve got a person who knows science pretty well. Is the intellectual interaction between the monitor and say the gas dynamic laser, or you, was that of any importance?
Kantrowitz: It depends how. For example, Ed Gerry became ARPAís chief of lasers after a while, and of course he, and several other people from this laboratory have taken that position.
Bromberg: And they came back then as monitors?
Kantrowitz: As monitors. And then of course we just continued the same dialogue that weíd had while they were here. Only they of course were government officials by this time and they had a financial responsibility and so on, but otherwise the scientific discussions went on just as before.
Bromberg: I see, so theyíd come here and just go right in with the development and so on.
Well, if you remember any of these people who were monitoring during some of the episodes we talked about, and who were important, as opposed to just —
Kantrowitz: Iíd like to remember this first man in ARPA who took us seriously. He had an important position in ARPA, and I donít remember him. It would be worthwhile remembering his name.
Bromberg: I expect that weíll get around to —
Kantrowitz: — youíll get around to it. If you just ask Ed Gerry that question, he will know what Iím talking about. He later became an Assistant Secretary for R and D in the Navy.
Bromberg: I want to tell the tape something you said off tape, that the work that the Soviets were publishing didnít have an impact here.
Kantrowitz: No. It did not. Well, it had only the impact of saying, yes, they had the same ideas. And it was striking, to us. I was surprised that, you see, I was surprised in this sense that the Soviets came up with the same idea, because I thought they had the same — I still think that they had the same destructive dichotomy between fluid mechanics and physics that we had. Now, maybe it wasnít quite as acute there. There were numbers of people who had been part of the US atom bomb project, the Manhattan District, who, as physicist, like Hans Bethe for example, had to, during that — during the research on the bomb, they had to learn a lot of fluid mechanics. So people who were involved in that had this mixture of disciplines, but they were very few.
Bromberg: Now, Bethe was at one time a consultant. Wasnít he a consultant?
Kantrowitz: He still is. He still is, and he used to come here very regularly for a long period.
Bromberg: Does that extent the back into the sixties?
Kantrowitz: Oh yes, to the beginning of the laboratory.
Bromberg: Was he involved in this laser part at all or just in other parts?
Kantrowitz: Just as a consultant theoretical physicist.
He was generally — oh yes, he was involved in the laser work, but not as closely as he was in the re-entry work, for example. But he certainly was, and even is. I mean, heís a little feeble now, but he still comes to this laboratory several times a year.
Bromberg: Is there anybody else wrought to pick up here in terms of consultants? You said Townes came here to lecture once.
Kantrowitz: He wasnít a regular consultant. (crosstalk) Iíll tell you who the consultants were in the beginning. Peter Debuye was one. He was a marvelous person. He taught me a great deal. I mean, he was an inspiring person. Edward Teller has been or was a consultant.
Bromberg: Did he get involved in the laser part too?
Kantrowitz: You know, he and Bethe are opposite kinds of personalities. Not just their politics that are opposite, itís their personalities that are opposite. Teller is interested in what heís interested in. Bethe is interested in what youíre interested in. And he will devote himself. When he comes here as a consultant, he will devote himself to trying to help you.
Teller has concentrations, areas of concentration, and when your areas of concentration and his cross, heís superb, because heís an extremely imaginative person. And so, he isnít made to be a consultant, heís made to be a creator. Itís a different personality altogether.
Hans is a —
Bromberg: Did Teller get involved with the laser isotope separation work here?
Kantrowitz: Only peripherally. Because he said he had a conflict of interest, so he didnít want to do that, and we didnít want to pressure him. But itís — I donít know what James told you about that laser isotope separation business, but I feel that the way this whole thing was handled for the United States, looking at it from the point of view of the United States and the stimulation of high technology industry, that it is a scandalous thing to take something that was invented and developed in private industry end give it to the national laboratory, because there the theory is that theyíre supposed to invent and develop things and give them to industry.
Bromberg: Iíd like to talk about that whole program, but first of all Iíd like to find out — thereís one thing I want to know about. In this period, which is about 1969, was there a move away from DOD projects to other projects? There were a few —
Kantrowitz: — yes, we tried to see if we could, we saw the DOD research budget going down, or at least not growing, and we, together with I guess the whole scientific community, got kind of tired of Defense work in that period.
Bromberg: Why was that?
Kantrowitz: Well, you know, the spirit of the late Sixties, the Vietnam War, and I mean — when you read that, it will be useful to you first to talk after you read that book, which is devoted to the social aspects of the structure of this laboratory.
Kantrowitz: So we really searched hard for non-military projects. While keeping up the military work. And, letís see, what did we do at that time?
Bromberg: I know you did the pollution monitoring work then.
Kantrowitz: Yes. That was a small scale operation. Yes. We did the medical thing at that time, and that was very successful. There still are about 40,000 patients a year treated with the device that we developed.
We did industrial lasers. And that was — I donít mean the nitrogen laser —
Bromberg: — the one that you gradually, from about Ď70 to Ď75, made into a materials processing laser.
Kantrowitz: Yes. And that, I think that the difficulties with that were the following. We had a very strong position technically with that kind of laser, but we didnít have, we didnít personalize it into patents. It wasnít a real commercial go-getting atmosphere in the laboratory. I didnít inspire that. And I was really an unreformed academic, for the 23 kids that I ran this laboratory with, because I didnít have to reform. But we had this notion that there were commercial opportunities out there, and we were so sure that we were, that we represented the high level of expertise that we should be able to find a market for them. But we didnít. We didnít have the instinct for the bottom line that you have to have to make it go.
And so we, our success was moderate, except in the case of the (???) device. That was very very successful, and could have maintained this whole laboratory, because the profits from that were very substantial.
Bromberg: Then to go to laser isotope separation, first of all, Iíd like to ask the obvious question. What role in getting you started
did this whole business of (???) having talked to (???) and coming here and talking to Levy and James, what did that have to do with?
Kantrowitz: You really ought to talk to Levy about that.
But of course, the idea was old, you know, that you could separate isotopes optically. Itís in 1920, one year after the discovery of isotopes.
Bromberg: The question really is, did you people have that idea in mind at that point?
Kantrowitz: No, we didnít have the idea in mind. We didnít have the idea in mine, and I donít know exactly what happened, with (???) and (???) and so on. There was this conversation, but what constitutes an invention at this point, I donít know. Anyhow, I havenít anything first hand to contribute to how that idea came. It came to me from Levy and James, and that was the only, that was when I entered the picture.
My reaction was horror.
Bromberg: Oh, really?
Kantrowitz: Oh yes. It scared the hell out of me.
Bromberg: They came and said, ďWe can enrich uranium.Ē
Kantrowitz: Yes. And I went through the process of telling them to see if they could knock it down, you know. We tried. I got together with about five people. Levy and James were the advocates, and people like Martin and so on were supposed to help me criticize it and see if we could prove that it wouldnít work.
Bromberg: Did you also involve any outside people at this point?
Kantrowitz: Not yet. But I just got so frightened by the whole thing.
Bromberg: They presented it as cheap, easy alternative?
Kantrowitz: Well, whenever you present something new and you donít know what the difficulties are, it looks easy. And it did look easy. Indeed, it isnít very hard to do it on an atomic scale. ÖThe kind of thing that I wanted to do commercially — I wanted something that was smaller and quicker.
Bromberg: I see.
Kantrowitz: But this was of course immense in its implications. But the thing that was terrifying about it was that it looked at first like a easy way to make bombs, because, as you remember, the policy of the United States was, of the whole scientific community, was that we ought to hold the process of the separation of isotopes as a way of controlling the whole thing, because that was an immense undertaking, by the diffusion process, and you could find factories that could do that, and by the centrifuge process it was also a large scale undertaking.
So, and the laser seemed so efficient by comparison. And there was absolutely no reason why it couldnít work.
See, at that time, one of the commercial processes, one of the standard processes for assessing the enrichment of uranium was by measuring the spectrum. By looking at the spectrum of uranium, you could tell how much 235 was in it, so the lines that are appropriate to the two isotopes are easily separable. So thereís no question about that, that you could separate the two. And there was no question that you could wake lasers, and we knew how to make lasers of indefinite power.
Bromberg: This was one of your commercial lines, the dye?
Kantrowitz: — dye lasers, the dye line laser. And we just, eventually when we got around to doing it experimentally, we had all the equipment here.
Bromberg: How did Exxon get into this, at what point did they get in?
Kantrowitz: Now, at this point, it seemed to me — you must understand my relation with AVco at this point. I guess I can tell the story now, though I never have. But it was like this — we live and let live. I didnít want them to control this laboratory. And I didnít want — what I wanted to do was to run it as an autonomous organization, which meant I had to pay my way.
When they finally, in the last years of my tenure here, decided that I was two uppity, the last two years, when I told them that I wanted to buy the laboratory and make it into a separate corporation, a really separate corporation, they decided that I was too dangerous.
Then they forced me to take money. That was a means of controlling the laboratory, and now the laboratory canít exist without the corporation.
Bromberg: When you ran it you didnít get any Avco money?
Bromberg: You just got contract —?
Kantrowitz: We supplied ourselves, contracting, commercial money and so on. We supported ourselves.
Bromberg: Right through the sixties?
Kantrowitz: Yes. Yes, the sixties and the seventies. It was much harder in the seventies than it was in the sixties.
Bromberg: And turned over a profit to them?
Kantrowitz: A small profit. It didnít amount to anything. But they didnít have any investment in here, either.
Bromberg: I see. Well, it seems a rather tenuous connection.
Kantrowitz: Thatís right, it was a very tenuous connection during that period. And they came very close to spinning us off as an entity because we didnít have much to do with the rest of the corporation. But we got a president who was a (???), who had a bachelorís degree in physics, majoring in physics, and he didnít want to let go of this laboratory. And so he resisted.
But anyway, we —
Bromberg: So in Ď69, the thing was, if you could make the contract deal with Exxon, this would be part of —
Kantrowitz: Thatís right, if we could do it. If we could do it, you see. We certainly couldnít finance the development of this ourselves and even Avco couldnít, because we contemplated that it would take several hundred million dollars to get into this business.
By that time, we understood.
But let me go back to the secrecy and finish that story. For a period of three months, I put an absolute clamp on this and I said, this group of five or six people was going to know about it, and nobody else. And we didnít spread it around the laboratory, like we did everything else that we did around here. We had a special meeting in my conference room, with the doors shut.
It was a very unusual way to do business, for us. And I tried to figure out people to talk to about this thing, who could give me wise advice about it. And I donít remember whether or at what stage I brought Hans into this. I donít know. And I donít know what his position was. Put at some stage of course we did.
But I just struggled with it, for a long time. It was kind of — very strange, for me. Then gradually, as we explored the process, in this small group, I got the idea that really this isnít easy to do. You have to tune these lasers with great precision, in order to separate the isotopes. Itís something that could be done, certainly, but was not a garage process.
We undertook to compare it with what was the easiest way to separate the isotopes of uranium, which is with a centrifuge. To make weapons grade. The history of the centrifuge is very interesting in this respect. It was developed Soviet Union by a German emigree who developed it there, and the Soviets decided that it wasnít a useful process, and so declassified the whole thing and sent this guy out. But certainly the centrifuge, I decided after a while, is a much easier way to do it, if you wanted to set up a garage operation, than the laser. The laser was not as easy to set up, but was capable of doing it in enormous quantities.
Bromberg: Now here weíve got a situation where, it was early in 1970 that Jane and Levy applied for a patent, and then it was Ď71 when they got their proof of principle, you know, the atomic separation. How did the committee meeting and the Exxon thing go along?
Kantrowitz: What we did, when we decided to go forward with this, was to seek outside financing, and who has 200 million dollars to put down? So we, the oil companies generally were interested in getting into the uranium business. Gulf, for example. And Exxon had an operation where they were mining uranium mines, and fuel fabrication and so on.
So we got an assemblage of oil companies to come here one day, all the leading oil companies came, and we wanted to persuade them to back this process, in the same way that we had gotten the utilities to back our work in MHD generators.
It was a very interesting process that I didnít fully understand. When Exxon decided they wanted to do it, all the others just melted away. They wouldnít dare compete with Exxon!
And so indeed, Exxon said they would pick up the tab and they would do it.
So the first thing they did was to give us 150 thousand dollars, just a token thing, go do it. So we did prove the principle and separated some thousands of atoms of, detectable amounts, but just barely detectable amounts of U 235, and showed that indeed the laser could do this exactly as was expected.
That we did with our commercial lasers.
Bromberg: You didnít make any changes in —
Kantrowitz: Well, we just had to tune them carefully, thatís all.
Bromberg: Were you still keeping this extreme secrecy?
Kantrowitz: No. No at that time. It was the standard kind of secrecy. Now, shortly thereafter Exxon, we made a joint venture with Exxon. I mean, as soon as the — and then they controlled what went on. So it was different train the rest of this laboratory, and was compartmentalized from the rest of the laboratory. After the Exxon deal was made.
Bromberg: What about Livermore? They started about Ď72, Ď73. Were you in touch with them? Did they know what you were doing?
Kantrowitz: No. No.
Bromberg: They just came to it independently, as far as you know?
Kantrowitz: I think they did. I think they did. Well, there was — the Russian work was earlier, Ď69 or Ď70.
Bromberg: Of course, it wasnít completely not obvious, not completely inaccessible — the idea, that with a dye laser you could do it.
Kantrowitz: Yes. Yes. It was pretty obvious. Now, they — what was I going to say? Ö
Kantrowitz: Oh yes, Livermore. An interesting difference developed in technology between ourselves and Livermore. You know, liquid uranium is a very corrosive substance. Itís hot and it dissolves other metals. And Livermore did not figure out how to deal with that.
At this point I made an invention, and the invention was that we will do this — see, you have to make something that will have a source of uranium atoms, and be, provide that; when you ionize some with the laser, that you can deflect them electrically, electromagnetically, separate them because of their ionization or charge. And so the invention was, instead of handling the liquid uranium in ovens and so on, that Livermore was contemplating — and which stuck them, they couldnít do anything about that — they couldnít make that work — at last, I saw, what we did was make a copper vessel, in which we put some chunks of solid uranium to start with, and then we had an electron beam that came down and melted the uranium, but the copper was waterócooled, so we had only cold uranium against the copper, which was perfectly stable.
And then the liquid uranium was contained by uranium, which got rid of the corrosion problem instantly.
Bromberg: I see. This was something that happened at one of these meetings?
Kantrowitz: No, I remember how that happened. Levy came to me and he said he didnít know how to do that, and like most good ideas, it just comes, you know, you know not from where. He just came into my office and I said, ďThis is the way to do it.Ē
A couple of weeks later he came back and said, ďYou know, youíve got to patent that. Itís too important. There isnít any other way to do it.Ē
So we did. We got a patent on that, and then, after that we were way ahead of Livermore, and Livermore didnít know about that until much later.
So when the Department of Energy got interested in this whole business —
Bromberg: They werenít particularly interested when Livermore started, is that what youíre saying?
Kantrowitz: I donít think so, no. It was about three years after Livermore started before they got seriously interested in it.
You see, Manson Benedict, you know him?
Bromberg: I know who he is. I donít know him.
Kantrowitz: He played an important role in that, in the following way. He had this committee for the AEC, which was charged with surveying all kinds of possible ways of separating the isotopes of uranium, and among the ways that he mentioned were lasers. And he dismissed that in about two sentences, saying it was obviously impractical.
Bromberg: When was this?
Kantrowitz: It was in the late sixties, just before we started. So when we applied for a patent on the process, the patent examiner said, ďLook, this is too obvious, we canít patent it.Ē
Then we brought Benedictís statement in, so we got a patent!
Bromberg: That was the first of the Levy-James business, thatís interesting.
Kantrowitz: Yes. And it was just on the basis of that report, that we were able to patent it.
Bromberg: So how did the DOE begin to — did they come to talk to you about this?
Kantrowitz: Yes, then they came and they wanted to be informed, and of course we informed them with appropriate confidentiality and so on.
Bromberg: I see, they would routinely come at a point like this.
Kantrowitz: Well, this was a process of considerable importance, and so neither we nor Exxon had any idea that we would keep it from them, and so we didnít get very much feedback from them, but we got one statement, or somebody did, that Livermore hid started three years after we did, and at the time of this committee survey, they were five years behind us. Because essentially we had — the problem that stopped, them, we had gone around right at the beginning.
Bromberg: What were the other important problems that you remember besides —?
Kantrowitz: — scaling up lasers to this power level.
Bromberg: I see, that was a big —
Kantrowitz: — oh yes, because what you wanted to do was to make — you wanted to separate uranium in tonnage lots, you know. And for that you needed average power of kilowatts of lasers, of dye lasers, and the dye laser we had made was like a watt or so, and so you needed, we needed to develop these lasers. We needed to have automatic systems to keep them tuned, because otherwise their tuning would drift off, and you needed to develop the process. If you just exposed uranium, the uranium vapor to lasers, if youíre not careful, you can make a system that will just create a uranium laser and dump all the energy. You can easily make various inverted populations that way and dump all the energy, and you have to work out all the details of that process. In other words, what we had to do was go through the enormous complexity of the uranium spectrum, of course, the most complicated spectrum. And what we did was to develop a computerized apparatus that just stepped right through the uranium spectrum and studied every line. And we found the best route to ionizing uranium.
You had to study uranium and what are called auto-ionization states, which, in which the uranium has an attached electron, but that electron has enough energy to escape, but it takes a finite amount of time for it to escape. And those states were not known in the literature, but we had to find them and study them.
That kind of research had to be done, and we did that with Exxonís money. Then we started the job of providing our job was to provide the research base, and Exxon said they were going to do the engineering themselves.
Bromberg: The laser development was done here?
Bromberg: High powered lasers?
Kantrowitz: I believe we produced the high powered lasers and they produced the system that would use all these things, and that has to be, I donít remember how many, maybe 100 such high powered lasers.
Bromberg: For the?
Kantrowitz: — for the factory. For the factory. That was, for a while, in the early seventies, Exxon had the idea that this was really going to be the successor to oil, you know. They were looking to double Exxon with the uranium business, and they would have this —
Bromberg: — must have been a disappointment, is that Dickemanís?
Kantrowitz: Dickeman, yes. He was an imaginative person and he was — he had the guts to talk back to the Exxon management. And it isnít surprising that he didnít last. As soon as the nuclear business began to turn down, he got fired.
Bromberg: By the way, this suit that (???) instituted, did that have any effect on what was going on?
Kantrowitz: It was sort of a comic operation that was going on off to the side. We didnít pay any attention to it. Exxon had to defend themselves, you see, and they did actually hire an Israeli attorney to defend themselves. It wasnít serious. Because, you see, the position that I took about this whole invention — that if it wasnít for Manson Benedict, it wouldnít have been regarded as an invention at all. It was rather a good, what passed for a good business idea, why donít we do that? You see. And as such, it isnít surprising that there were many people -Ė
Oh, I remember how I consulted with Hans about this. It was in Israel. The two of us happened to be in Israel at the same time. He was there, and I visited there, and Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, some place, I said, ďLook, Hans, itís important that I talk to you.Ē
So we went for a walk, and I told him about this terrible problem that I was facing, and yes, I remember, he was very helpful to me, and we talked it through, and he was very happy with the policy that we went along with finally, to develop it, that it was worth developing.
Now, you see, as it turned out, developing this process could have made an important contribution against proliferation, and thatís very important to know. During the, sometime in the seventies, the AEC decided that they could not fulfill the requirements for enriched uranium properly, so they did an operation called ďclosing the books.Ē They would not take any orders. Now, I donít remember exactly when that happened. The result was that the French, who wanted the independence anyway, could now get support from other European countries for building their own enrichment plants, and the United States had lost control of the supply of enriched uranium. United States and the Soviet Union, of course they had their independent supply, had lost control of the supply of enriched uranium at that point.
What the laser could do was to make any amount of nuclear 3 percent enriched uranium, which is what you need for plants.
Bromberg: If it had been ready in the mid-seventies but in fact nobody expected it to be ready.
Kantrowitz: Well, if it moved. If it moved it could have been ready by the late seventies.
Bromberg: I see, so you really think it could have forestalled the —
Kantrowitz: Oh yes. And the problem wasnít going to appear until the eighties, you know. It was just that they closed the books. They wouldnít take new orders. They agreed to fulfill the orders that they had. But closing the books meant that these plants would close down, elsewhere in the world.
Bromberg: OK. Itís 6 oíclock now —
Kantrowitz: Why donít we make another appointment?