Exploring the peacetime possibilities of atomic science

The University of Michigan Energy Institute builds off the legacy of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project (MMPP), launched in 1948 to engage in research and other activities that support the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

By pursuing the constructive potential of a technology that showed such extraordinary destructive power at the close of World War II, these focused activities were meant to serve as a “living memorial” for the 579 members of the University of Michigan community who gave their lives during the war.

The Phoenix Project was also the university’s first fundraising campaign. The novel approach to honoring those who died in the war proved to have broad appeal among alumni and friends, and the campaign raised $7.3 million (almost $64 million in 2014 dollars) by the time it concluded in 1953.

In addition to supporting the construction and use of the Ford Nuclear Reactor, now decommissioned, the Phoenix Project has helped fund studies on the applications of nuclear technology in such fields as medicine, chemistry, physics, mineralogy, archeology, engineering, and law.

MMPP stands as a distinct entity within the Energy Institute, which will support the Project’s unique, memorial mission for generations to come. The Phoenix Project’s legacy also endures in the name of the renovated and expanded new home of the Energy Institute – the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Laboratory on North Campus.

Pioneering advances for nuclear research applications

The funds raised for the Phoenix Project supported research in engineering and health, social, and natural sciences. Below are some examples of research projects that helped drive advances in peaceful applications for nuclear science. While the full list of projects that were funded by the first campaign is extensive and multidisciplinary beyond the scope of natural and health sciences, the examples below serve to highlight some areas that created lasting implications for modern technology.

Gamma ray sterilization

Numerous food preservation projects, from sterilization of canned meats to pasteurization of fresh fruit, were supported and explored by Phoenix Project funding. A study by Lloyd Kempe, J.T. Graikoski and R.A. Gillies tested the quantity of gamma radiation required for sterilization of canned meats, arguing that while data were available regarding the sensitivity of bacterial spores to radiation in buffers, the conditions in a can of meat in which those spores could be found were distinctly different. The resultant project sought to correlate the quantity of gamma radiation from cobalt-60 required to sterilize samples with the number of spores found in the meat samples, and features lines such as “On being opened, those cans that swelled liberated putrid odors, and the meat was foamy.” Amusing observations aside, this early research played the essential role of providing precedent for future sterilization techniques that are still used today.

Gamma ray sterilization of canned meat previously inoculated with anaerobic bacterial spores

Carbon-14 dating

Carbon dating, first developed by Willard Libby in the 1940s, also received attention from University of Michigan physics researchers as part of the Phoenix Project. H.R. Crane and E.W. McDaniel contributed to the techniques used to determine the age of objects containing organic material by developing an apparatus that differed from the existing model in terms of design and measurement technique. The main distinction, to which the authors called attention in a 1952 article in the journal Science, was that their apparatus was automatic in operation. Aside from that significant shift in design, their design also made an effort to address concerns associated with reducing background interference, durability of the apparatus over time, and reproducibility in the technique of handling and mounting samples. Included in the journal article are diagrams of the apparatus, detailed descriptions of the materials used within, and notes regarding possible concerns with background radioactivity and sample contamination.

An automatic counter for age determination by the C14 method

Radioactive iodine for cancer treatment and detection

William Beierwaltes conducted extensive research on radioisotopes, especially iodine (I-131) with assistance from the Phoenix Project. At the 1952 annual session of the American College of Physicians in Cleveland, Ohio, he presented a literature review of his experiences using I-131 to treat and detect thyroid carcinoma in patients. Surprisingly, Beierwaltes cast his own work in a negative light in the introduction of the review, stating “lack of regard for these criteria has, in our hands, led to wasteful use of I-131 and rise of false hopes in the thyroid cancer patient,” and describes particular criteria for which he would recommend I-131 treatment for a patient, which are: 1) a thyroidectomy was already performed, 2) x-ray therapy was attempted first, and 3) biopsy confirmed the patient would likely respond to radioactive iodine treatment. Today, thyroidectomy is still the most widely-used treatment for thyroid cancer, but radioactive iodine treatment is still used as an ablative treatment, especially if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as nearby lymph nodes.

Indications and contraindications for treatment of thyroid cancer with radioactive iodine

Bubble chamber

Perhaps one of the more well-known examples of Phoenix Project funding, Donald Glaser’s bubble chamber design eventually won him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1960. Glaser described the principle of the bubble chamber in a 1952 letter to the Physical Review. While less commonly used today due to a variety of reasons including the size of experiments and convenience of repeated measurements, Glaser’s bubble chamber served as a vital precursor to particle detectors that would help define contemporary physics, including the first detection of a neutrino interaction.

Some effects of ionizing radiation on the formation of bubbles in liquids


Later progress in nuclear non-proliferation

Gravitationally-induced quantum interference

A 1975 collaboration between University of Michigan graduate and Ford Motor Company researcher Sam Werner, and Purdue University physicists Albert W. Overhauser and Roberto Colella, led to the first observation of gravitationally-induced quantum interference. Utilizing the Ford Nuclear Reactor, the group carried out a neutron interferometry experiment that successfully showed a phase shift of matter waves induced by earth’s gravity. Due to the conflicting natures of quantum mechanics and gravitational mechanics, their observations were unique in that they were dependent on both Planck’s quantum constant and Newton’s gravitational constant, which is normally not the case in observable physical phenomena. In fact, the ongoing irreconcilable relationship between quantum mechanics and gravity is still one of the points of contention that string theory attempts to address today.

First observation of gravitationally-induced quantum interference

Low-enrichment uranium fuel for research reactors

Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the 1980s, the Ford Nuclear Reactor was the first university reactor to demonstrate usage of low-enrichment uranium (LEU) fuel cores. The research effort was conducted in collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory as part of the Reduced Enrichment Research and Test Reactor (RERTR) Program. Previously using high-enrichment uranium (HEU), fuel cores used in the reactor were enriched to 93 percent 235U, the isotope of uranium required to produce nuclear weapons; this meant continued proliferation of weapons-grade uranium which was then at risk of being stolen or otherwise diverted. Carefully designing the low-enrichment uranium cores, which contained less than 20 percent 235U and and ran in the same reactor with minimal or no retrofitting required, researchers achieved criticality on December 8, 1981. The operators also reported that conversion to LEU slightly increased the lifetime of the fuel, and discontinued licensing of HEU shortly after.

Conversion and standardization of university reactor fuels using low-enrichment uranium

Operational impacts of low-enrichment uranium fuel conversion on the Ford Nuclear Reactor


Exploring new frontiers in nuclear research

The examples described above are a small subset of the total number of experiments that were conducted with support from the Phoenix Project. While not every project that received Phoenix funding may have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, their contributions to science and society serve as a reminder of the original ideology that gave rise to the Phoenix Project. For a more in-depth look at the topics that received funding, see the 1960 publication “The Phoenix Project; a continuing investigation into peacetime implications and applications of atomic energy.”

The Phoenix Project; a continuing investigation into peacetime implications and applications of atomic energy

Want to go in-depth? Read more about the Phoenix Project’s achievements and unique history.