About | AIChE


On June 22, 1908, 19 men working in what was then a new and emerging discipline – chemical engineering – met at the Engineers' Club in Philadelphia and founded the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. At the time, chemical engineering – somewhere between chemistry and mechanical engineering – had just begun. Its literature was almost nonexistent, and the 500 or so people who could call themselves chemical engineers were widely scattered. The founding of AIChE helped to establish chemical engineering as a separate discipline. Local sections began to form throughout the country. This story reflects on the formation of one such local section 46 years after the founding of AIChE.

Preliminary steps leading to the formation of the Central Savannah River Section go back to World War II when President Roosevelt asked DuPont to build a plant to supply material for a so-called Metallurgical Project. President Roosevelt described this project in a letter to the DuPont President Crawford Greenewalt to be "most important to national security." This project called for development of supporting chemical processes for isolating and purifying plutonium and providing uranium metal of the requisite purity. The result was the first plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 that resulted in an abrupt end to WWII.

Leading up to that world-shaking event, DuPont in 1944 assigned a chemical engineer by the name of Art Mowry to the Manhattan Project. Mr. Mowry met other engineers at the University of Washington prior to being relocated to the Hanford site being built. This group of engineers was assigned to Richland Washington during the early days of building reactors at Hanford. These men from the Manhattan Project participated in formation of the Columbia Valley AIChE Section (now known as Tri-Cities Section) in the 1940s. Mr. Mowry later contributed to the formation of the Savannah River Local Section representing counties in both South Carolina and Georgia along the Savannah River. More recently, the section was renamed Central Savannah River Section.

In the spring of 1950 President Harry Truman asked DuPont to undertake the "design, construction, and operation of certain new facilities for the atomic energy program." The reactors for the manufacture of plutonium were to be a new site, Ellington SC. The facility near Aiken became known as the Savannah River Plant. The reactors were constructed with aluminum cladding. Construction in August 1951 went to a 45-hour week and in March 1952 to a 54-hour week working six nine-hour days. The Construction work force peaked at 38582 in 1952. Not until March 1954 did a 40-hour construction work week resume.

The process facilities included the following: metallurgical and mechanical techniques of fuel and target fabrication; chemical engineering of large scale gas and liquid contacting to extract and purify heavy water (deuterium oxide); unusual and demanding operations with highly radioactive materials in order to produce and purify the plant's products, plutonium and tritium. The separation and purification of plutonium and uranium took inputs of slugs of irradiated uranium and produced purified products. In the "Hot Canyon", irradiated fuel is dissolved, most of fission products are separated from it, and plutonium is separated from residual uranium. Addition separation and refinement are done in a "Warm Canyon". Advanced reactor technology, different than the graphite piles at Hanford, called for heavy water moderation and the use of the heavy water as a primary coolant medium. The supply of heavy water was a critical factor for the early startup of proposed nuclear reactors at the new plant.

As construction logically built those facilities first that were needed first, operating and supporting groups prepared to take over. Necessary process development to guide reactor operation and the separation of products from wastes was the very first technical effort on the site. By the end of 1955, all the basic production facilities were in operation. All of the principal processes were being operated on an industrial scale for the first time anywhere. However, defense needs required a greater production of tritium. The first enriched uranium was used in the reactors to provide sufficient reactivity to irradiate loading of lithium-aluminum targets. By doing so, more neutrons were made available for absorption by lithium-6 to make tritium.

In the next 5 years from 1955 to 1960, the production capacity of SRP was increased six-fold. This was done first by designing and fabricating reactor elements with much greater surface area. More heat exchangers and increased coolant flow were required. A large cooling lake PAR Pond and increased capacity of river water pumps were added. The greater production capacity thus achieved required modifications and increases in chemical separations facilities. For tritium separation and purification an additional facility was built.

The migration of engineers and scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project in WWII to the Savannah River Plant facility had an enduring impact on the relaxed Polo Pony community of Aiken SC. The development of the Savannah River Plant by the government to meet the nation's defense needs prompted the development of the Savannah River Section of the AIChE by engineers who were trained as chemical engineers and served the Savannah River Plant as engineers, scientists, and managers. An engineering club was formed in 1953 and Ed Bertsche was elected Chairman. The initial size of the club was 8-10 engineers. The club submitted its charter to National AIChE in a request for acceptance of the club as an AIChE local section. National accredited the section in 1954.

The acceptance of the section by the AIChE national society coincided with the formation of the Nuclear Engineering Division (NED) by AIChE. This was the first division to be organized within the AIChE. In 1954 the Division was established to provide a forum for the presentation and publication of the flood of newly declassified technology that had been developed early in the atomic energy program. The NED was the first professional organization for the emerging nuclear industry and is an indication of the impact of this new local section to the AIChE body of information. The NED sponsored the First international Congress on Nuclear Engineering and had a major role in the organization of subsequent Nuclear Congresses. (In recent years the NED has been active in sponsoring nuclear symposia and information to the public. The NED has also provided nuclear information for dissemination to AIChE members living in states that have had nuclear initiatives on the ballot. The present emphasis is on providing factual nuclear information to AIChE members, to governmental agencies, and to the general public. The Division cooperates with other divisions in areas of mutual interest.)

Jack Foster became the Chairman and served 1954-1955. It is uncertain who was Chair in 1955-1956. Regular meetings were held alternately at North Augusta City Hall in South Carolina and Bell Auditorium across the Savannah River in Augusta, Georgia. The meetings were well attended and supported by notable scientists and engineers at Savannah River Plant. These included DuPont Assistant Plant Manger Henry Green and Bill Churin, a high-ranking manager in the Reactor Department. Participation at meetings was approximately 15 with a membership of about 50. Attendance at meetings remained fairly stable, increasing slowly to about 20 in the 1950s with a membership of about 70.

William P. Bebbington was Chair in 1956-1957. Dr. Bebbington earned a PhD in chemical engineering at Cornell University in 1940. His experience in heavy water during World War II led to work at the Savannah River Plant in 1950, becoming manager of the plant's Heavy Water Technology Section. He is the author of a Scientific American article on reprocessing nuclear fuels and a booklet on radioactive wastes that has been widely circulated by the AIChE. He is a fellow of the AIChE and has received the AIChE's Robert E Wilson Award in nuclear chemical engineering. Dr. Bebbington wrote a definitive history entitled History of DuPont at the Savannah River Plant. This history parallels the history of the AIChE Savannah River Section in its formative years.

The Chair in 1957-1958 is uncertain. Don Webster, now deceased, was Chair 1958-1959.

Art Mowry was Chair in 1959-1960. Mr. Mowry earned BS in chemical engineering at University of North Carolina in 1936. (DuPont hired him to take part in the production of munitions for the Battle of Briton prior to the United States entering the war. He worked for seven successive plants with DuPont making, TNT, DNT, tetryl lead azide, nitric acid, fuming sulfuric acid. He was then assigned to The Manhattan Project and received his training at Oak Ridge before moving to Washington for the Hanford construction to build the world's first nuclear bomb.) He served as a supervisor in many facilities at Savannah River Plant. Mr. Mowry still attends meetings on a regular basis.

J W (Bill) Morris was an active member in the late fifties and was Vice Chair in 1959-1960 prior to becoming Chair. Dr. Morris earned BS, MS, and PhD degrees in chemical engineering at the University of Texas. (He was assigned to the Manhattan Project. In 1950 he became involved in heavy water production at the DuPont Dana Plant in Indiana.) In 1953 he came to the Savannah River Laboratory. He was Director for separations R&D and later Director for reaction engineering and still later Director for materials R&D.

DuPont was very supportive of the new AIChE Savannah River Section. Officers were encouraged to take an active part in national meetings with expense reimbursement. National AIChE provided financial support in the first few years and helped the new section establish firm footing.