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Our History

Ames Laboratory was formally established in 1947 by the Atomic Energy Commission as a result of the Ames Project's successful development of the most efficient process to produce high-purity uranium metal in large quantities for atomic energy. Today, Ames Laboratory pursues a broad range of priorities in chemical, materials, engineering, environmental, mathematical and physical sciences.

How the Laboratory Began

Frank SpeddingAfter the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939, the U.S. government decided that the development of atomic energy warranted a consolidated national effort and asked leading scientists to join in the endeavor. In 1942, Iowa State College's Frank H. Spedding, an expert in the chemistry of rare earths, agreed to set up and direct a chemical research and development program to accompany the Manhattan Project's existing physics program.

Nobel Physicist Enrico Fermi was sure a self-sustaining chain reaction could be triggered by bombarding the uranium nucleus with thermal neutrons. For the chain reaction to be successful, tons of uranium metal needed to be produced with a purity far beyond what was commercially available.

Several industries and university laboratories started investigating better methods for Harley Wilhelmproducing uranium metal. The Ames' group, led by Harley A. Wilhelm, soon developed a process for producing pure uranium, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal at dramatically reduced costs.

The first successful self-sustaining chain reaction initiating the controlled release of nuclear energy occurred Dec. 2, 1942, in the squash court under the west stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. The Ames Project furnished one-third of the uranium metal used in the successful demonstration of the first chain-reacting pile.


Stagg Field Chain ReactionAfter proving that a chain reaction could be self-sustained and controlled, the need for pure uranium greatly increased. The Ames Project produced as much metal as possible until industry took over the process in 1945. The Ames Project developed new methods for both melting and casting uranium metal, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal and reduce production costs by as much as twenty-fold. This uranium production process is still used today. Ames produced more than 2 million pounds (1,000 tons) of uranium for the Manhattan Project, advancing wartime efforts to uncover the secrets of atomic power and protect national security.


Army/Nave E FlagThe Ames Project received the Army/Navy E Flag for Excellence in Production on Oct. 12, 1945, signifying two-and-a-half years of excellence in industrial production of metallic uranium as a vital war material. Iowa State is unique among educational institutions to have received this award for outstanding service, an honor normally given to industry.

Ames Lab has broadened its scope beyond materials research over the years. Examples of specific projects include: world-class fundamental photosynthesis studies to help in the design of synthetic molecules for direct solar energy conversion; development of a remote-controlled analysis system that will acquire and analyze samples from hazardous waste sites at greatly reduced risk and cost; research to break free of traditional programming methods and harness the power of the most advanced computing systems available for scientists unlocking the secrets of revolutionary new materials like superconductors, fullerenes and quasicrystals; and the synthesis and study of nontraditional materials such as organic polymers and organometallic materials to serve as novel semiconductors, processable preceramics and nonlinear optical systems.