It was arguably the scientific fraud of the century, but a hugely expensive failed project to create energy from nuclear fusion laid the foundation for Argentina’s success in physic.
The ruins are ghostly, silent. The crumbling buildings and labs – hidden on an island that’s drowning in a dense, green forest – look as if they are an abandoned villain’s lair from an early James Bond movie. And in a way, they are a villain’s making – they’re all that remains of a top-secret project, ‘Proyecto Huemul’, which turned out to be one of the biggest and most expensive frauds in scientific history – and ironically also became the foundation of a scientific success story.
Tiny Isle Huemul, with an area of just two square kilometres, is covered in alerce trees; it resembles the head of a giant crocodile taking a snooze on a sunny August afternoon, poking out of the mesmerising deep blue waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi in Patagonia, amid the snow-capped mountains of the Argentinian Andes.
These days, it takes a kayak to get here. Our paddles slice silently into the chilly water as we navigate slowly past a rickety wooden pier and the semi-submerged wreck of a boat. The lonely figure of Huemul’s only resident, a policeman, greets us as we wade ashore. Tourists don’t come here anymore, not since the last boat sank, but the policeman knows the kayakers and lets our group pass. They come here often, to pick overripe apples or wander amongst mossy trees, wild roses and thorn bushes.
Leading us is Ingo Allekotte, from the nearby mountain resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, famous for its outdoors, its chocolate shops – and its physics institute. It’s this scientific connection that gives us permission to be on the island.
Power of the sun
It all started in 1948, with a tempting promise to solve the world’s energy problems. Ronald Richter, a recent émigré from Austria, claimed that he could achieve controlled fusion, recreating the power of the sun on earth. He convinced Argentina’s then-leader General Juan Domingo Perón that he could produce unlimited energy – and the dictator was hooked. After all, he was desperate for Argentina to industrialise and needed cheap electricity to power the factories and steel mills envisaged by his five-year plan.
Back then, nuclear power seemed to hold all the promise. In 1942, Enrico Fermi had created the first nuclear reactor in Chicago producing the first self-sustained fission reaction using uranium. Fusion, however, was still a dream – even in its uncontrolled form, with the hydrogen bomb still in secret development in labs in the United States and the Soviet Union.
Richter promised that he could trigger self-sustaining fusion using just hydrogen, the simplest and lightest of all elements, as well as deuterium, lithium, and heavy water. It proved all too tempting for Perón, who agreed to give the Austrian a blank cheque and build his lab and a nuclear reactor on Isle Huemul. The island was chosen partly because of its ample water supply, but mainly because it was so far away from the public eye, back then two days of travel from the capital Buenos Aires. Perón wanted to keep the project a secret: he had fallen out with many in Argentina’s scientific community and didn’t want them to meddle.
Construction began in late 1949, and Richter quickly burned through the president’s 1,000 million pesos (or more than £150m in today’s money). He built a 12-metre-high cube-like concrete bunker, which sheltered a machine he called a ‘thermotron’. Residents of Bariloche still remember the huge electrical charges released by his experiments, which made the windows shake in their homes.
Finally, on 16 February 1951, Richter reported a “net positive result”: hydrogen, fed into an electric arc, had reached a temperature necessary to produce a sustained fusion reaction. Or so he thought. Perón, eager to announce the feat to the world, rapidly organised a news conference. In March 1951, the dictator proclaimed that Argentina had discovered “the controlled liberation of atomic energy” from thermonuclear reactions and would be able to solve the world’s energy problems. It was done, he said, not with radioactive uranium, but with hydrogen.
The revelation led to media frenzy, although even then some science journalists took the announcement with a large pinch of salt. Argentina, after all, back then was a mainly rural nation of some 16 million people. How could it have leapfrogged the US and the Soviet Union, neither of which had even managed to build a hydrogen bomb yet?
But Perón’s promise of a future where energy would be “sold in half-litre bottles, like milk” quickly turned out to be a fraud.
The international scientific community had been sceptical from the start. Hans Thirring, the director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Vienna, wrote at the time that “it is a 50 per cent probability that Perón is giving credit to the ravings of a fantasist; a 40 per cent probability that the president has been the victim of a huge scam; and a nine per cent chance that Richter is telling the truth.”
A few months later, Perón sent a group of researchers to Huemul to investigate. They were led by physicist Jose Antonio Balseiro and it didn’t take them long to debunk Proyecto Huemul. Richter retired to Buenos Aires in disgrace. It was Argentina’s – if not the world’s – biggest modern-day scientific scandal.
Today, says Gerardo Aldazabal, one of the physicists working in Bariloche, the remains of Richter’s lab look like ‘the Zone’ in the cult movie ‘Stalker’, an epic 1979 sci-fi film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, which depicts a forbidden wasteland area where all one’s wishes are supposed to come true.
In an ironic twist, the fiasco of Huemul was indeed the seed for one of Argentina’s biggest scientific feats. After he had unmasked Richter’s experiments as fraudulent, Balseiro managed to persuade Perón to use all the expensive equipment from the island to do some real science in nearby Bariloche. This is how 60 years ago the Instituto Balseiro, one of South America’s most prestigious scientific establishments, was born. It’s part of Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission, and home to the Bariloche Atomic Centre, which overlooks the island.
“In some sense, it was the best expectable outcome from a failure,” says Allekotte, walking in one of Huemul’s empty, echoey buildings. “The creation of the Institute was a turn of the page.”
The road to success
Soon, Argentinian physicists at Instituto Balseiro developed advanced research nuclear reactors – real ones – and a uranium enrichment plant. Over the years, the university was home to both the renowned physicist Guido Beck and the brilliant Juan Maldacena, a string theorist who in 1997 startled the world with his discoveries supporting the suggestion that our universe might be nothing but a hologram.
It’s tough to gain admission to the Balseiro Institute; just 30 to 40 students a year pass the entrance exam and are allowed to complete the final three years of their undergraduate studies in physics, nuclear, mechanical or telecommunications engineering here in Bariloche. In total, only around 90 undergraduates and 160 graduate students study in the prestigious place, all of them on full scholarships. They do their experiments at the Bariloche Atomic Centre, the research institution on campus, where many continue working after graduation.
The Institute is also home to the majority of the Argentinian physicists working on the world’s largest cosmic ray project, the Pierre Auger Observatory, among them Allekotte. Here they do calculations for the huge observatory based in nearby Mendoza province, with its 1600 detectors spread across 3000 square kilometres. Another team at Balseiro is currently designing a dark matter lab, planned to be housed in a tunnel to be built between Argentina and Chile.
Inadvertently, Ronald Richter also triggered scientific success well beyond the Instituto Balseiro. The Austrian’s fraudulent claims spurred American physicists into action, prompting them to reflect on the design of a real thermonuclear reactor. Lyman Spitzer, then a 36-year-old Princeton astrophysicist working on the hydrogen bomb project, read Perón’s announcement, and began to wonder whether it would be possible to confine a hot plasma in a magnetic field. He submitted the concept to the newly formed US Atomic Energy Commission, promising to build a ‘magnetic bottle’ to re-create the sun’s energy on Earth.
Fast-forward two years, and in the autumn of 1953 Spitzer developed the so-called Figure 8 Stellarator, the first step to various nuclear fusion research projects.
The hunt for cheap and inexhaustible energy continues to this day. The biggest venture right now is ITER, formerly known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. This international megaproject is currently building the largest-ever experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor in the south of France. Just like other labs, such as the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the US, the goal is to have a commercial reactor that would not only create plasma by fusing atoms, but by doing so generate more energy than was used to create the plasma. Scientists call it ‘ignition’ – exciting the plasma so that it begins to heat itself like a star.
In Bariloche, meanwhile, nobody is working on fusion anymore, except for some theoretical research. Allekotte hopes that the ruins at Isle Huemul will be left intact: to him, and his colleagues at the Instituto Balseiro, these ruins are a reminder of how they managed to snatch scientific victory from the jaws of defeat.