The formal CV is formal and many
juicy details come out from the chronicles. After an accurate Classical
Liceum where I was force fed with latin, greek and ancient authors, a
construct much more appreciated in my later years, I did emerge between
the free thinkers of the Scuola Normale
in Pisa, the college that bred Fermi and innumerable Italian University
Professors, since Napoleon who founded it . Being freer than them I found
University too constraining and in many ways petty, so, after my degree
in physics, I chose to start free roaming, an attitude I did conserve
for the following 50 years of my career. In retrospect I do not repent
for that choice as I got fun and reward.
My first job, in 1950, was with CISE
a center started in Milano by some large industries like Montecatini,
Edison and Fiat to have a competent glimpse on the emerging nuclear energy.
As heavy water reactors did look simpler because they do not need enriched
uranium, my group was geared on how to produce heavy water and my task
was to invent the processes. I did it very well, and I even re-invented
the work horses, the two temperature chemical exchange systems, at the
time top secret of the US. They were in fact declassified only in 1955
when we presented our results at a nuclear congress in Ann Arbor.
The patents did create inevitable frictions
and I moved to the Battelle
Institute in Geneva. But as an interlude I went first to the DNEA
in Buenos Aires as a consultant to tell them how to produce heavy water.
I did greatly enjoy the brisk change of context, I became deputy director
of the Basic Research Division and started my millions miles career flying
through thermals raping rickety Constellations crossing the Atlantic with
measured autonomy. At Battelle, as a problem solver, I was in the perfect
environment. The first nut came from the watch makers who at the time
were nurturing the philosophical idea of the immortal watch that never
needs maintenance or repair. They had solved everything except lubrication.
Oils need some water to lubricate, this generate microscopic rust and
the oils polymerize and clog. Back to first principles I broke the knot
by inventing the gaseous lubricant that forms the necessary monomolecular
layers that provides low shear forces when junctions break during movement.
It was originally a pentanoamine that grouts the substrate with the amine
head and forms tight layers with the tails. The lubricant did prove perfect
for the very low coefficient of friction, absence of corrosion and material
transfer. It was never used because that's life, many are called but few
are chosen. Philosophy had moved to swatches.
A mirror research was provided by the French Railways
who were plagued by the problem of sanding the wheels of the locomotives
when trains did cross the Alps, with important losses of material in the
rails. Because low friction is caused by super thin layers of oils or
else, I found the easy solution of destroying them on the run with an
appropriate electric discharge. The method works very well and an increase
in friction coefficient by a factor of five can be easily obtained with
trains running at 100 km/hr. Actually I'm told that for decades the world
railway association has run test trains applying this technique, but apparently
no real train is using it. Many are called but few are chosen again. Perhaps
mentioning it may suggest the solution of some problem somewhere else.
Life at Battelle was hectic not
to say desperate. Living on applied research with knotty problems and
hurried clients was difficult, and I was happy to grab the opportunity
to go back to Italy in a newly founded institution, Agip Nucleare (of
the ENI group) descending from a dream
by the tycoon Enrico Mattei to grab the Italian electric industry using
the nuclear passepartout. At that time, 1957, people with nuclear knowledge
were rare and strictly guarded by their institutions. I was instantly
hired by Gino Martinoli, the re-creator of Olivetti and later on of Necchi,
two important family owned fine mechanical industries who had run unto
the usual family problems. I was the third to be hired in Agip Nucleare,
after Martinoli as General Manager and his factotum driver.
My problem solving did start moving
from gadgets to people and I did organize a research team of about 50
people to tackle the problems linked to the purchase of a nuclear power
plant of the Calder Hall type to be located near Latina, not far from
Rome. The original natural uranium- graphite reactors built to produce
weapon materials were slowly becoming power stations to produce electricity.
The problems were numerous and we took our share, although it was very
difficult to push the solutions through the famous British haughtiness.
To give some examples, these reactors had the problem of xenon oscillations,
where xenon produced by the decay of iodine did reduce reactivity in such
a way that reactivity oscillations could be installed producing hot areas
in the reactor core.
The actual control was obtained
through a grid of control rods operated on the basis of the instant local
reactivity as measured by a set of sensors. The system was complex, error
prone and very expensive. I did propose, and my group did develop and
test an extremely simple system with dummy fuel elements that did change
reactivity as function of the local temperature damping the hot spots.
The reactivity was controlled through bimetals operating absorbers. Another
blemish of these reactors were the cooling ponds for the spent fuel elements
especially due to the corrosion of the magnesium sheats. We found and
tested that naturally circulating air was sufficient to cool the spent
fuel elements, inventing the dry pond that avoids the problems of the
swimming pool type repositories.
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