Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One Man’s Trash

I don’t often watch programs such as Antique Roadshow, but I understand the appeal to those who do. Who wouldn’t enjoy learning that the old junk in the attic is really a treasure? So far, I’ve been told, my old junk is merely junk. Well, perhaps the tastes of buyers will change someday.

Sometimes the value of old stuff changes not because of the whimsies of collectors, but because of the prices of the underlying materials. During the run-up in gold prices a few years back, lots of people cashed in their old bracelets and school rings. I didn’t buy a school ring in 1970 – $40 seemed too much. That lump of gold would be about $1,500 today.

Gold, as a defensive investment, swings in price largely for psychological reasons, but most materials are priced more on the basis of supply and practical utility. Utility can change with technology. Bauxite (aluminum ore) was all but useless before the Hall–Héroult process made large scale aluminum production feasible in the 1880s, for example. Rare earth elements in recent decades have been boosted thanks to their use in electronics. Many of the byproducts of making kerosene and lubricating oil from petroleum were little more than waste before the internal combustion engine and the petrochemical industry made them the most valuable parts. Probably the most fateful detritus, though, was the slag from radium production in Oolen, Belgium, in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, radium was (as it still is) extraordinarily pricy. In the 1930s it fetched $27,000 per gram ($437,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars). The best source of radium was pitchblende (uranium ore); even in the best deposits, tons of ore had to be processed to extract a single gram of radium. The uranium was tossed aside as garbage. Some was used by ceramics manufacturers for glazing, but not much.

In 1915 Robert Rich Sharp, prospector for Union Minière du Haut Katanga, discovered the world’s richest uranium deposit at Shinkolobwe in the Katanga province of the Belgian Congo, presently the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the mine, which operated until 2004, never has been surpassed. The uranium didn’t matter, but Sharp was excited when the assay showed trace amounts of radium. After World War 1, Union Minière shipped the ore to Oolen for radium extraction.

Starting in 1934, some of the most talented physicists the world ever has known (Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Werner Heisenberg, et al.) were experimenting with uranium. They bombarded samples with neutrons and hoped to create transuranic elements. We now know that they succeeded in splitting uranium atoms in multiple experiments, but somehow missed that this was what they were doing. (Most likely, there was a simple and very human reason: they weren’t looking for fission, and so they didn’t see it.) This is sometimes called the “Five Year Miracle”: these incredibly brilliant people failed to make sense of what they were seeing until 1939 when Hahn and Strassmann in Berlin identified the fission byproducts from their uranium experiment; this led to the correct interpretation of the results, including the significance of the U235 isotope and the possibilities of the transuranic element 94 (plutonium). Had this happened earlier (e.g. by Fermi in 1934 – he later was amazed at himself for not having seen it), World War 2 in Europe very likely would have been an atomic war.

Most politicians were clueless about the research on radioactive elements, but many interested lay people were not. Science fiction authors were quick to speculate on the possibilities. HG Wells got the jump on the field with his 1913 story The World Set Free about atomic bombs and nuclear power. Robert Heinlein’s 1940 Blowups Happen about a nuclear reactor accident (the first real reactor was built in 1942, and was a secret) and his 1943 yarn about a full blown nuclear war are almost tardy by comparison. Another forward thinker, fortunately for the West, was Edgar Sengier of Union Minière du Haut Katanga, who realized that the tossed-aside uranium ore might be more than just slag after all; he shipped 1200 tons of it from Belgium to the US just before the outbreak of war, thereby keeping it out of the hands of the Germans who occupied Belgium in 1940. The unguarded ore remained for two years in 55 gallon drums in Staten Island until purchased by the US government for the Manhattan Project.

So, what trash is lying around my property today with such hidden danger and potential as the Oolen garbage heap? There is always lots of fur from my constantly shedding cats on all the furniture. Somehow I don’t see cat fur as a breakthrough wonder material though. Maybe stink bugs. Stink bugs are invasive insects that have overrun many US states, including NJ. When annoyed, the bugs emit an odor. They annoy easily. The stink is so powerful that it must do something incredible other than just drive me out of my own house. Maybe I should start storing the bugs in 55 gallon drums against the day someone discovers what the something might be – perhaps just putting enough of them in a drum together (plus a little radium?) can create a smell so strong it will open a wormhole to another dimension. It smells plausible. There might be money in that.

From 1955, Uranium by The Commodores


  1. That would in fact be the smelliest wormhole in nearly every dimension. I doubt even Cthulhu would use that one. :)

    1. Good thought. Perhaps some of the stuff could be packed into a spray can for extra protection in those dimensions: Cthulhu-B-Gone.