I can’t believe I’ve never come across this story. An actual Nazi scientist, Ronald Richter, was working on an actual super-technology, lithium-hydrogen nuclear fusion, in an actual secret lair, the island of Huemul, surrounded by razor wire, machine guns, and patrol boats. All of this in Argentina! And it used a spectacular technique, shock waves in plasma arcs, that would shake the whole building when they went off. His work was fraudulent, but his ideas sparked (so to speak) research that continues to this day. It also shows a lot of the standard elements of engineering fraud, ones that we see in the biggest recent one, Theranos.
In 1948 the new dictator of Argentina, Juan Peron, asked a German refugee engineer, Kurt Tank, what he could do to Make Argentina Great. Tank was a serious guy, a major aeronautical designer at the German company Fokker-Wolf. He did the Fw 200 transatlantic passenger plane in 1936 and the Fw 190 fighter plane in 1941, and had come to Argentina after the War to build a jet fighter. He said “Get Ronald Richter out of Europe”.
Richter was born in 1908, and got his physics doctorate from Prague University in 1935. He then kicked around for the next ten years doing miscellaneous tech jobs in Germany. There were lots of openings in those days even for erratic figures like him, since the Nazis had removed all the Jewish scientists and engineers. He didn’t do well, but all the while he had been working on the side on unstable plasma arcs.
These are formed by two graphite electrodes when they’re put close together. When a voltage is put across them, a spark will jump the gap and form a brilliant arc. This was the first form of electric light, and was still used in bright sources like searchlights and movie projectors right up into the 1980s. But if a little too much current is put through them, the arc expands and explodes with a deafening bang. Richter thought that there might be enough energy in that explosion to actually get hydrogen atoms to fuse. He claimed he had measured the gamma rays that would be emitted by such fusions. Mark Oliphant had already demonstrated the fusion of deuterium and tritium in 1933 at Cambridge, so the theory was in place.
He was unemployed and broke after WW II, and so jumped at the chance to work in Argentina. His talk of building miniature suns to generate unlimited power convinced Peron, and he was given a lab in the corner of Tank’s aircraft plant. When one of his experiments exploded, he cried “Sabotage!” and flew into a rage. He insisted on working somewhere more private, so Peron set him up on Huemul island on the border with Chile:
There he specified the construction of huge concrete reactors:
And quite nice housing for himself and his family. The reactor itself consisted of an arc setup driven by a huge bank of capacitors and transformers. The arc electrodes were hollow, and he would squirt some hydrogen and lithium into the arc when it went off.
He knew that an arc had nowhere near the temperature and pressure to really do fusion. Arcs get up a few thousand degrees Centigrade, and fusion needs many millions. He hoped, though, to exploit two things:
- Resonance induced by Larmor Precession, an effect used in MRI machines that can make nuclei bop around in strong magnetic fields. Maybe this would let the hydrogen and lithium nuclei get close enough to one another.
- A fusion chain reaction, where the fusion of a few atoms would release enough energy to heat up the others to where they fused.
In 1951, he finally thought he saw evidence of fusion, or maybe Peron was pressing him for results after the huge amounts he had spent. He and Peron gave a big press conference, announcing that backwards Argentina had achieved fusion, accomplishing what the world’s leading science countries could not. The local press had no idea what to make of this, but the news excited and dismayed physicists in the US, UK and France. Few believed it.
Local physicists demanded a look at his equipment. They found that his radiation detectors were behind the shielding, and so could not have picked up anything. That’s a pretty basic mistake. The radio antennas needed to induce the Larmor effect were not even connected. The fusion evidence that he claimed, a broadening in the spectral lines of the arc, could not be seen.
Peron was humiliated, and cut him off at once. He had to leave Huemul, and tried without success to find physics work elsewhere, applying to the US, France, and even Libya. He died in penury in Buenos Aires in 1991. The buildings in Huemul are still there but in ruins:
So how does this compare with Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos blood-testing company? A few common elements:
- A good pitch – They both offered something quite valuable: science glory for Argentina here, and easy tracking of health problems for Theranos.
- A reputable validator – Hardly anyone can evaluate the quality of a proposal, so you have to rely on experts. Here it was Kurt Tank, and there it was Channing Robertson, an engineering dean at Stanford who had taught Elizabeth Holmes when she was an undergraduate, and still backs her.
- Deep secrecy – Richter made sure that his lab was far from anyone who knew anything about nuclear physics, and wouldn’t let anyone see his work. Holmes made everyone sign strict NDAs and threatened dissenters with major lawyers. They were both right about this; exposure did them in.
But there were some positive outcomes here. A physics institute, the Bariloche Atomic Centre was established at the nearby town of Bariloche using Richter’s equipment, and it has done good work on cosmic rays and nuclear waste management. The initial report of Richter’s work prompted a lot of people to think seriously about fusion, and Lyman Spitzer of Princeton then came up with the stellarator scheme, a magnetic confinement plasma system that underlies most of current fusion work.
Of course, fusion still doesn’t work after almost 70 years of intense effort. It seems ludicrous now that anyone thought it could be done on some remote island, but no one would have known that at the time. The credulous Peron was convinced by the Nazi reputation for tech wizardry. Maybe that’s the most important lesson for tech fraudsters – find ignorant but rich patrons. Please don’t make use of this advice!