Sharp Blue: Nuclear isomerism explosives


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Almost a month ago, Matt (who is serialising his novel, Not Fish; Duck) and I were talking about 2300AD, an old science-fiction RPG in which tantalum was a vital component of faster-than-light drives. Matt described the current state of the tantalum mining industry, and then I said:

That is interesting. I also read somewhere a few years ago that tantalum nuclei are the only nuclei known to have long-lived metastable states and so could be used as “nuclear batteries”. That made me think of 2300AD too!

Matt then mentioned the use of tantulum by the SDI programme, and I said:

Yeah, but that’s about building things like airframes that use tantalum, not pumping it into a higher nuclear state, dropping it on somebody, and inducing it to fall back into a lower nuclear state. I’d imagine that it’d be possible to get kilotonnes of explosion out of kilograms of tantalum or Hf-178m or whatever. You might be able to slip that past all the international controls on uranium and plutonium if you were lucky!

Matt then said (in his usual decapitalised style):

all i have to say to that suggestion is “i’m glad you haven’t met any third world dictators.” because you could probably be very dangerous in the wrong think tank, frankly.

As a consequence of this, I spent the next morning’s bus ride thinking about how to explosively assemble x-ray laser cavities of uranium around nuclear isomeric tantalum to make a bomb. I toyed with the idea of writing a Sharp Blue entry, but decided that it wasn’t really worth the effort. And now I’ve just read an article in this week’s New Scientist that reveals that the US Department of Defense is working on nuclear isomerism explosives (and, yes, tantalum is involved).

Thus finishes today’s lesson in how not to have a glittering career as a geopolitical pundit!

Update (14/8/2003): Now I’m wondering if the gamma ray flash from a nuclear isomerism discharge could be used to ignite lithium deuteride or some other fusion fuel. If so, it would be a way to make relatively clean fusion bombs, which would be useful for several applications, including Orion and civil engineering (both here and in space).

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