Located on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, the Ames Laboratory is one of the U. S. Department of Energy national labs. This lab grew out of work done at ISU during the 1940s which was part of the Manhattan Project. The lab now employs around 300 scientists and engineers, including about 150 graduate students.
In 1942, Iowa State College professor Frank H. Spedding (a chemist who specialized in studying the rare earth metals) organized a chemistry research and development program to accompany the Manhattan Project. Under the leadership of another professor, Harley A. Wilhelm, the group developed a process for the purification and casting of large ingots of Uranium at low cost. The Ames Project produced as much pure U as possible until 1945, when the process was taken over by industry, but the Ames methods are still used today. Eventually, over two million pounds of pure U were produced in Ames, including a third of the U used in the first successful self-sustaining chain reaction at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942. The Ames Project received the Army/Navy E Flag for Excellence in Production on October 12, 1945.
Originally, the Ames Project had been housed in a handful of small campus buildings on the north side of ISU. One of these, a tiny wooden cottage, was nicknamed "Little Ankeny" and it was the site for most of the processing of U. Later, the building was demolished, but it was found to be so contaminated with radiation that the building and a layer of topsoil were handled as radioactive waste. Many people who lived and worked near campus in the early 1940s reported seeing mysterious things around Little Ankeny. Darleane Hoffman wrote "some rather spectacular flashes of light were seen ... from time to time that illuminated the night sky" and other people noticed the long railroad trains that would pull into campus at night and leave again a few hours later, seemingly empty. These trains were used to transport the U ingots from Ames to Chicago, and because of their great density, only a few ingots could be placed in each boxcar, thus the train appeared to be empty when it left.
In 1947, the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission established the Ames Laboratory, which has been operated under contract by ISU ever since. After the war, work at the lab branched out to other areas of chemistry, physics, engineering, environmental and materials science, and mathematics. A process to recover U from scrap was developed, along with an ion exchange process for separating the rare earth elements. A method for large scale production of Thorium was also developed.
In the 1950s, Ames Lab made the purest rare earth metals in the world at a reduced price. Scientists worked on the separation of Plutonium and fission products from spent U fuels. Other separations projects resulted in several tons of extremely pure Hafnium, Niobium, Barium, Strontium, Cesium, Rubidium, and Yttrium. Meanwhile, medium-energy physics research was ongoing at ISU's synchrotron.
During the 1960s, a five-megawatt heavy water reactor for neutron diffraction was built at Ames Lab. The Rare-Earth Information Center was established to provide reliable information about rare earth metals and compounds to the scientific community. In the following decade (the 1970s), the Atomic Energy Commission became the Department of Energy. The research reactor was closed and decommissioned. A process for reclaiming Copper, Tin, and Chromium from automotive scrap was developed. The most exciting discovery of the time was the invention of ICP-AA (inductively coupled plasma-atomic absorption) which allowed the rapid, simultaneous detection of up to 40 different trace metals in small samples.
Ames Lab continued to branch out in the 1980s with work on superconductivity and nondestructive evaluation. The Materials Preparation Center was established to contribute to the development of new materials. Nondestructive techniques were developed to test aircraft parts for damage. New, lightweight permanent magnets were made from Nd-Fe alloys. In the 1990s the Scalable Computing Lab was set up to study ways to make parallel computing accessible and cost effective. Magnetic refrigeration was developed with the use of Gadolinium alloys. A method for turning molten metal into fine-grained powder was also invented. Ames Lab could also claim the invention of a DNA sequencer and the first non-carbon buckyball compound1,2.
Ames Lab is housed in four buildings on the north edge of the ISU campus, but space is rented in several other buildings, notably the chemistry building, Gilman Hall. The original Ames Project buildings have all been destroyed (some of them were contaminated by high levels of radioactivity). Harley A. Wilhelm Hall, originally named "Metallurgy Building," was built in 1948 followed in 1950 by Frank H. Spedding Hall, originally called "Research Building 1," and the Metals Process Development Building (nicknamed "MD" or "Metals Development") in 1960. All three buildings were connected by underground tunnels. Further expansion did not take place until 1994 when the Technical and Administrative Services Facility (TASF) was built in the space between Gilman and Spedding Halls.
Information was obtained from:
The Ames Laboratory website: http://www.ameslab.gov
The USDOE website: http://www.energy.gov
Personal knowledge of the facilities
1: Slavi C. Sevov; John D. Corbett Science (1993) 262, 880.