Manhattan Project

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The Manhattan Project was the codename for a project conducted during World War II to develop the first atomic bomb, before the Germans or the Japanese. The project was led by the United States, and included participation from the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946 the project was under the command of Major General Leslie R. Groves, Jr. of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director.

The project was also charged with gathering intelligence on the German nuclear energy project. Through its Operation Alsos it gathered nuclear materials and rounded up German scientists.  The MED maintained control over atomic weapons production until the formation of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in January 1947.

The project’s roots began in 1939 when Leó Szilárd and Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressing concerns that Nazi Germany might develop nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project, which began as a small research program that year, eventually employed more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion ($22 billion in 2009 dollars).

It resulted in the creation of several research and production sites whose construction and operations were secret. Research took place at more than 30 sites, including universities across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The three primary research and production sites of the project were the plutonium-production facility at the Hanford Site in eastern Washington state; the uranium enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the weapons research and design laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The Little Boy gun-type fission weapon was made from uranium-235, an isotope of uranium that makes up only 0.7% of natural uranium and is chemically identical to the 99.3% uranium-238. Three physical methods were employed for uranium enrichment: electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion, and thermal diffusion.

The three enrichment processes were run in series, with the magnetic process as the first stage, enriching from 0.71% to 0.89%. This material was fed into the gaseous diffusion process, which produced a product enriched to about 23%. This was, in turn, fed into a thermal diffusion process, which boosted it to about 85%, sufficient for nuclear weapons. The of which was detonated at the Trinity test in July 1945 in White Sands, New Mexico.

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