Historic East Bank physics tank now a storage locker

Nathan Hall

The towering metal maroon storage tank, emblazoned with the University’s logo – a gold “M” – is sandwiched between two brick walls, buttressed by Douglas fir trees.

Decades of students heading to Tate Hall for physics lectures have passed the giant water tank-looking structure sitting amid a cluster of classroom buildings.

While its presence on campus might go unnoticed, experiments conducted with the tank more than 50 years ago were once seen as scientifically groundbreaking.

But as time passed, the tank was abandoned. Once used for cutting-edge nuclear physics research, it is now a glorified storage locker for senior University physics scientist Kurt Wick.

It is technically called a Van De Graaff electrostatic particle accelerator generator, and until it caught fire at least three separate times in the 1950s, it was used by University researchers to study particle energy beams ?clusters of statically charged electrons. Scientists experimenting with the electricity created hoped to harness the power and find practical applications for it.

The scientists would monitor the flow in an adjacent underground room, protected from low-level radiation by a gigantic, cumbersome safety door, Wick said. Sort of like a dentist standing behind a curtain giving an X-ray in order to avoid cancer-causing radiation, but on a much larger and potentially dangerous scale.

In addition to Wick’s equipment, the tank is fill with dusty Eisenhower-era scientific gadgets and gizmos that resemble set cast off’s from “Star Wars” or “Frankenstein.”

Wick said opinions of the machine were not always positive.

One of the biggest complaints I heard they had was that these big pumps produced a tremendous amount of hissing when they released the insulating gas,” said Wick, whose office is connected to the generator’s hull by a concrete tunnel. “People were worried about the radiation, and I think at least one person tried to unsuccessfully sue the school.”

Wick said the generator was roughly capable of producing 2 million electron volts – enough to power 50,000, 40-watt light bulbs at once.

After the fire risk led the University to retire the generator, it built two similar devices on the Mississippi River bank near the Washington Avenue Bridge.

Those tanks produced twice the power, were slightly safer and were used for sanitizing food and hospital equipment until the early 1990s. Both are also still standing.

University physics professor John Broadhurst, who oversaw the latter projects, said the original Tate generator was used for U.S. Navy research, most likely around the time of World War II.

An electron flow can perhaps be seen most vividly in a thunderstorm cloud, where negative and positive charges collide to create lightning. They created an electron flow in the tank by pressurizing nitrogen and carbon dioxide by taking out any oxygen in the room.

“This, of course, increased the danger of fire despite the safety valves, so when it did (catch fire)…there was soot everywhere and it took at least a month to start it up again,” Broadhurst said.

All three generators are still around because the University has neither the funds to safely dispose of them nor a good idea yet of what would go in their place.

In 1997, the University of Iowa demolished their circa 1964 eight-story high generator, but at a considerable expense.

“If there was another Noah-type flood, we could just seal it up and float it out,” said Hans Courant, a retired University physics professor. “We have no use for it now but to get rid of it would really be quite an undertaking.”

Courant said the Society of Physics Students, an early precursor of the current physics club, once used the abandoned area as a meeting spot.

Robert Van de Graaff, a University of Alabama mechanical engineering graduate, invented the groundbreaking generator in 1929. Graaff was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and later taught at Princeton and M.I.T. Considered a founder of modern physics, the generator created the first particle beams capable of controlling its energy.

Smaller, portable versions are still highly popular with high school science teachers as a way to colorfully demonstrate static current by making a student’s hair stick straight up in the air.

“I think it’s beautiful because this is the real history of science,” Wick said. “In its day, it was the hottest technology going…and a lot of this stuff could be rented out for sci-fi films at the very least.”

Wick said he likes using the space for storage because of the unique design of the antiquated equipment.

“Like the old supercomputers, it really just looks incredible,” Wick said. “But new models like laptops are just another boring appliance like a toaster; they’re just not as interesting.”

Nathan Hall covers University research and technology and welcomes comments at [email protected]