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My CV as a personal story
(by C. Marchetti)


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.

July 2003

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