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Zippe-type centrifuge

  The Zippe-type centrifuge is a device designed to collect Uranium-235. It was developed in the Soviet Union by a team of 60 German scientists working in detention, captured after World War II. The centrifuge is named after the team's lead experimenter, Gernot Zippe.

Natural uranium consists of two isotopes; the majority (99.3 percent) is U-238, while approximately 0.7 percent is U-235. If natural uranium is enriched to contain 5 percent U-235, it can be used as fuel for light water nuclear reactors. At 90 percent, it can be used for nuclear weapons.

Enriching uranium is difficult because the two isotopes are very similar in weight: U-235 is only 1.26% lighter. It requires a centrifuge that can spin at 1,500 revolutions per second (90,000 RPM). For comparison, washing machines operate at only about 12 to 25 revolutions per second.

The device has a hollow, cylindrical rotor filled with gaseous uranium in the form of its hexafluoride. A pulsating magnetic field at the bottom of the rotor, similar to that used in an electric motor, is able to spin it quickly enough that the U-238 is thrown towards the edge. The lighter U-235 collects in the centre. The bottom of the gaseous mix is heated, producing convection currents that move the U-238 down. The U-235 moves up, where scoops collect it.

To reduce friction, the rotor spins in a vacuum. A magnetic bearing holds the top of the rotor steady, and the only physical contact is the needle-like bearing that the rotor sits on.

After the captured scientists were released in 1956, Gernot Zippe was surprised to find that engineers in the West were years behind in their centrifuge technology. He was able to reproduce his design at the University of Virginia in the United States, publishing the results, even though the Soviets had confiscated his notes. Later in Europe during the 1960s, Dr. Zippe and his colleagues made the centrifuge more efficient by changing the material of the rotor from aluminum to a stronger alloy called maraging steel, which allowed it to spin even faster. This improved centrifuge design is used by the commercial company Urenco to produce enriched uranium fuel for nuclear power stations.

The exact details of advanced Zippe-type centrifuges are closely guarded secrets, but the efficiency of the centrifuges is improved by making them longer, and increasing their speed of rotation. To do so, even stronger materials, such as carbon fibre reinforced composite materials are used, and various techniques are used to avoid forces causing destructive vibrations, including the use of flexible "bellows" to allow controlled flexing of the rotor, as well as very careful control of the rotation speed to ensure that the centrifuge does not operate for very long at speeds where resonance is a problem.

The Zippe-type is difficult to build successfully, and it requires very carefully machined parts. To give some idea of the precision required, it was reported in 2006 that the tiny amount of material deposited in fingerprints on Iran's prototype centrifuges were enough to cause the machines to shatter[1]. However, compared to other enrichment methods, it is much cheaper and can be used in relative secrecy. This makes it ideal for covert nuclear-weapons programs and possibly increases the risk of nuclear proliferation. Centrifuge cascades also have much less material held up in the machine at any time, unlike gaseous diffusion plants.

In 2004 Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani engineer, admitted to operating a smuggling ring responsible for supplying at least three countries with Zippe-type centrifuges.

Pakistan's nuclear program developed the P1 and P2 centrifuges -- the first two centrifuges that Pakistan deployed in large numbers. The P1 centrifuge uses an aluminum rotor, and the P2 centrifuge uses a maraging steel rotor, which is stronger, spins faster, and therefore enriches more uranium per machine than the P1 centrifuge's aluminum rotor.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Zippe-type_centrifuge". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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