The Huemul Project (Spanish: Proyecto Huemul) was a secret project proposed by the of Austrian scientist Ronald Richter to the government of Argentina during the first presidency of Juan Domingo Perón.
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 (Lawson criterion, 1957). 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.
During World War II German scientists under Walter Gerlach and Kurt Diebner carried out experiments to explore the possibility of inducing thermonuclear reactions in deuterium using high explosive-driven convergent shock waves, following Karl Gottfried Guderley's convergent shock wave solution. At the same time Richter proposed in a memorandum to German government officials the induction of nuclear fusion through shock waves by high-velocity particles shot into a highly compressed deuterium plasma contained in an ordinary uranium vessel. The proposal was not carried through.
Recommended to Perón by Kurt Tank, Richter convinced Perón that he could produce controlled nuclear fusion using cheap materials in a process that could supply cheap energy in enormous quantities, a program that eventually became known as the Huemul Project. Perón's reasons for backing Richter were in line with the ideology of modernization underlying his concept of the "New Argentina"; he was not interested in the military applications of atomic energy but rather saw it as a way to expand iron and steel production.
Perón believed that any project undertaken by a German scientist was bound to be successful. Due to his political disagreements with true Argentine scientists of the stature of, for example, Enrique Gaviola, Perón was reluctant to seek their advice on Richter's proposal and he gave Richter an effective blank check and appointed him as his personal representative in the Bariloche area.
Late in 1949 construction of the laboratories in Huemul Island (Isla Huemul in the Nahuel Huapi Lake), was begun. In March 1951 Richter informed Perón 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', Perón appointed a technical committee which included physicist José Antonio Balseiro and engineer Mario Báncora, which was to report directly to him whether Richter's project should be discontinued. The committee analyzed Richter's work and concluded that the actual temperature reached in his experiments was far too low to produce a true thermonuclear reaction. They reported their findings to Perón in September 1952.
The government appointed physicists Richard Gans and Antonio Rodríguez 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.
The Richter affair caused substantial damage to the science and engineering sectors of Argentina's higher education system. Not only was the financial cost enormous, but Richter had never contacted any Argentine university or admitted a student into his facilities, making no contribution to physics in Argentina.
Reactions and aftermath
On 24 March 1951 Perón announced to the international press "Argentina Produces Atomic Energy", and later decorated Richter with the Peronista Medal. Following international publicity and claims, scientists in Britain were hesitant to accept the claims of the unknown Richter without corroboration. In the USA, the press discounted reports of Richter's work, but secretly the government started funding two projects, Sherwood and Matterhorn. However, it soon became evident that the claims were spurious, and interest dried up. After Perón was deposed, the new government investigated Richter regarding 1,000 million Argentine pesos (about £25m at the time) allocated to the project and unaccounted for, and arrested him. Nothing further was heard about him. Secret British government documents declassified under the 30-year rule in 1983 report that Perón had contemplated invading the Falkland Islands in 1951, possibly due to his confidence that Argentina would be the first country to exploit atomic energy for industrial purposes.
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. Teófilo Isnardi et al., published in 1958. After the fall of Perón's government in September 1955, opponents to Perón painted a value for the budget of the project in a wall of Richter's Laboratory No. 4 (a photograph can be seen in Mariscotti's book, see references) 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 (Project Matterhorn, under Lyman Spitzer). 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 Bariloche.), can be visited by tourists. It is reached by boat from the port of
- See Rainer Karlsch, Hitler's Bomb (DVA, Germany, 2005)
- Cabral, Regis (1987). Saldana, J. J., ed. "The Peron - Richter Fusion Program, 1948 - 1952". Cross Cultural Diffusion of Science: Latin America (Mexico: Sociedad Latino Americana de Historia de las Ciencias y la Tecnologia) (2): 77–106. ISBN 978-968-6206-01-2.
- Mayo, Santos (March 2004). "More on the Value of Ronald Richter's Work". Physics Today. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
- New Scientist, 3 February 1983, p322 
- Guderley, G., 1942, Luftfahrforschung 19, 302.
- Mariscotti, Mario, 1985, El Secreto Atómico de Huemul: Crónica del Origen de la Energía Atómica en la Argentina, Sudamericana/Planeta, Buenos Aires, Argentina ISBN 950-37-0109-0
- Mariscotti, Mario. El secreto atómico 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 Atómico 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.
- López Dávalos A., Badino N., 2000 J. A. Balseiro: Crónica de una ilusión, Fondo de Cultura Económica de Argentina, ISBN 950-557-357-X.
- Reports of Balseiro and Bancora (1952)[dead link] in English.
- Balseiro's Report (1952)[dead link] PDF - Spanish
- Bancora's Report(1952)- Spanish][dead link]
- López Dávalos, Arturo y Badino, Norma (1988)[dead link]. Antecedentes Históricos del Instituto Balseiro - Spanish
- Horacio Luis Varela: Litio: Materia Prima para la Tecnología de la Fusión Termonuclear (1997) Spanish
- Mic. Ramón Regés: Proyecto Huemul (1999)[dead link] Spanish
- Guillermo Giménez de Castro: La quimera atómica de Richter (2004) Spanish