How one soldier invented the hydrogen bomb

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How one soldier invented the hydrogen bomb
How one soldier invented the hydrogen bomb

In the summer of 1950, the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks received a letter from a sergeant who served on Sakhalin. The author wrote that he knew how to make a hydrogen bomb. Well, and a thermonuclear reactor too, so as not to get up twice.


Oleg Alexandrovich Lavrentyev, the hero of our story, was born in 1926 in Pskov. Before the war, the guy managed to finish seven classes. Apparently, somewhere at the end of this process, he got hold of a book telling about the physics of the atomic nucleus and the latest discoveries in this area.

The 30s of the XX century were a time of opening up new horizons. In 1930, the existence of the neutrino was predicted, in 1932 the neutron was discovered. In subsequent years, the first particle accelerators were built. The question arose about the possibility of the existence of transuranic elements. In 1938, Otto Hahn first obtained barium by irradiating uranium with neutrons, and Lisa Meitner was able to explain what happened. A few months later, she predicted a chain reaction. There was only one step left before the question of the atomic bomb was raised.

It is not surprising that a good description of these discoveries sunk into the soul of a teenager. It is somewhat more atypical that this charge remained in her in all subsequent troubles. And then there was the war. Oleg Lavrentiev managed to take part in its final stage, in the Baltics. Then the twists and turns of the service threw him to Sakhalin. The unit had a relatively good library, and Lavrentyev, then a sergeant, subscribed to the journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk (Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk) for his money allowance, which apparently made a considerable impression on his colleagues. The command supported the enthusiasm of its subordinate. In 1948, he lectured on nuclear physics to unit officers, and the following year received a matriculation certificate after completing a three-year course at a local evening school for working youth in a year. It is not known what and how they actually taught there, but there is no reason to doubt the quality of Junior Sergeant Lavrentyev's education - he needed the result himself.


As he himself recalled many years later, the idea of ​​the possibility of a thermonuclear reaction and its use to generate energy first visited him in 1948, just when preparing a lecture for officers. In January 1950, President Truman, addressing Congress, called for the early creation of the hydrogen bomb. This was in response to the first Soviet nuclear test in August of the previous year. Well, for junior sergeant Lavrentyev, this was an impetus for immediate action: after all, he knew how he thought at that time how to make this bomb and get ahead of a potential enemy.

The first letter describing the idea, addressed to Stalin, remained unanswered, and no traces of it were subsequently found. Most likely, it just got lost. The next letter was sent more reliably: to the Central Committee of the CPSU (b) through the Poronaysky city committee.

This time, the reaction was interested. A command came from Moscow through the Sakhalin Regional Committee to provide the persistent soldier with a guarded room and everything necessary for a detailed description of the proposals.

Special work

At this point, it is appropriate to interrupt the story about dates and events and turn to the content of the proposals made by the highest Soviet instance.

As the author himself wrote in the summer of 1950, his work consisted of four parts, namely:

  1. Basic ideas.
  2. A pilot plant for converting the energy of lithium-hydrogen reactions into electrical energy.
  3. A pilot plant for converting the energy of uranium and transuranium reactions into electrical energy.
  4. Lithium hydrogen bomb (design).

Further, O.Lavrentiev writes that he did not have time to prepare parts 2 and 3 in detail and was forced to confine himself to a brief synopsis, part 1 is also damp ("written very superficially"). In fact, the proposals consider two devices: a bomb and a reactor, while the last, fourth, part - where the bomb is proposed - is extremely laconic, these are just a few phrases, the meaning of which boils down to the fact that everything has already been disassembled in the first part.

In this form, "on 12 sheets", Larionov's proposals in Moscow were reviewed by A.D. Sakharov, then still a candidate in physics and mathematics, and most importantly, one of those people who in the USSR of those years dealt with issues of thermonuclear energy, mainly preparing bombs.

Sakharov singled out two main points in the proposal: the implementation of a thermonuclear reaction of lithium with hydrogen (their isotopes) and the design of the reactor. In the written, quite sympathetic, review of the first point, it was said briefly - this does not fit.

Difficult bomb

To put the reader into context, it is necessary to make a short excursion into the real state of affairs. In the modern (and, as far as can be judged from open sources, the basic design principles have not changed much since the late fifties) hydrogen bomb, the role of a thermonuclear "explosive" is played by lithium hydride - a solid white substance that violently reacts with water to form lithium hydroxide and hydrogen. The latter property makes it possible to widely use the hydride where it is necessary to temporarily bind hydrogen. Aeronautics is a good example, but the list, of course, does not end there.

The hydride used in hydrogen bombs differs in its isotopic composition. Instead of "ordinary" hydrogen, it contains deuterium, and instead of "ordinary" lithium, its lighter isotope with three neutrons. The resulting lithium deuteride, 6LiD contains almost everything you need for great illumination. To initiate the process, it is enough just to detonate a nuclear charge located nearby (for example, around or, conversely, inside). The neutrons formed during the explosion are absorbed by lithium-6, which as a result decays to form helium and tritium. An increase in pressure and temperature as a result of a nuclear explosion leads to the fact that the newly formed tritium and deuterium, which were initially at the scene of events, find themselves in the conditions necessary for the start of a thermonuclear reaction. Well, that's all, done.

  • A) Warhead before the explosion; the first step is at the top, the second step is at the bottom. Both components of a thermonuclear bomb.
  • B) The explosive detonates the first stage, compressing the plutonium core to a supercritical state and initiating a fission chain reaction.
  • V) In the process of splitting in the first stage, an X-ray pulse occurs, which propagates along the inner part of the shell, penetrating through the expanded polystyrene filler.
  • G) The second stage is compressed due to ablation (evaporation) under the influence of X-rays, and the plutonium rod inside the second stage goes into a supercritical state, initiating a chain reaction, releasing a huge amount of heat.
  • D) A fusion reaction occurs in compressed and heated lithium-6 deuteride, the emitted neutron flux initiates the tamper decay reaction. The fireball expands …

This path is not the only one, let alone mandatory. Instead of lithium deuteride, you can use ready-made tritium mixed with deuterium. The problem is that both are gases that are difficult to contain and transport, let alone stuff into a bomb. The resulting design is quite suitable for explosion tests, those were produced. The only problem is that it cannot be delivered to the "addressee" - the size of the structure completely excludes such a possibility. Lithium deuteride, being a solid, elegantly circumvents this problem.


What has been stated here is not at all difficult for us living today.In 1950, it was a top secret, to which a very limited number of people had access. Of course, a soldier serving on Sakhalin was not part of this circle. At the same time, the properties of lithium hydride in themselves were not a secret, any person who was more or less competent, for example, in matters of aeronautics, knew about them. It is no coincidence that Vitaly Ginzburg, the author of the idea of ​​using lithium deuteride in a bomb, usually answered the question about authorship in the spirit that, in general, it is too trivial.

The design of the Lavrentiev bomb is broadly similar to that described above. Here we also see an initiating nuclear charge and an explosive made of lithium hydride, and its isotopic composition is the same - it is a light lithium isotope deuteride. The fundamental difference is that instead of the reaction of deuterium with tritium, the author assumes the reaction of lithium with deuterium and / or hydrogen. Clever Lavrentyev guessed that a solid substance is more convenient to use and suggested using it 6Li, but only because its reaction with hydrogen should give more energy. To select a different fuel for the reaction, data on the effective cross sections of thermonuclear reactions were required, which, of course, the conscript soldier did not have.

Let's say that Oleg Lavrentyev would be lucky once again: he guessed the right reaction. Alas, even that would not have made him the author of the discovery. The bomb design described above had been developed by that time for more than a year and a half. Of course, since all the works were surrounded by complete secrecy, he could not know about them. In addition, the design of the bomb is not only the layout of the explosives, it is also a lot of calculations and design subtleties. The author of the proposal could not fulfill them.

I must say that complete ignorance of the physical principles of the future bomb was characteristic then for people who were much more competent. Many years later, Lavrentyev recalled an episode that happened to him a little later, already in his student days. The vice-rector of Moscow State University, who had read physics to students, for some reason undertook to talk about the hydrogen bomb, which, in his opinion, was a system for irrigating enemy territory with liquid hydrogen. And what? Freezing enemies is a sweet thing. The student Lavrentyev, who was listening to him, who knew a little more about the bomb, involuntarily escaped an impartial assessment of what he had heard, but there was nothing to respond to the caustic remark of the neighbor who heard her. Do not tell her all the details he knows.

What has been said, apparently, explains why the project of "Lavrentiev's bombs" was forgotten almost immediately after it was written. The author showed remarkable abilities, but that was the end of it. The fusion reactor project had a different fate.


The design of the future reactor in 1950 seemed to the author to be quite simple. Two concentric (one in the other) electrodes will be placed in the working chamber. The inner one is made in the form of a grid, its geometry is calculated in such a way as to minimize contact with the plasma as much as possible. A constant voltage of the order of 0.5-1 megavolts is applied to the electrodes, with the inner electrode (grid) being the negative pole, and the outer one being positive. The reaction itself takes place in the middle of the installation and positively charged ions (mainly reaction products) flying out through the grid, moving on, overcome the resistance of the electric field, which ultimately turns most of them back. The energy spent by them to overcome the field is our gain, which is relatively easy to "remove" from the installation.

The reaction of lithium with hydrogen is again proposed as the main process, which again is not suitable for the same reasons, but this is not remarkable. Oleg Lavrentyev was the first person who came up with the idea of ​​isolating plasma using some kind of field.Even the fact that in his proposal this role is, generally speaking, secondary - the main function of the electric field is to obtain the energy of particles emitted from the reaction zone - does not in the least change the meaning of this fact.


As Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov later repeatedly stated, it was the letter from the sergeant from Sakhalin that first led him to the idea of ​​using the field to confine plasma in a thermonuclear reactor. True, Sakharov and his colleagues preferred to use a different field - magnetic. In the meantime, he wrote in a review that the proposed design is most likely unrealistic, due to the impossibility of making a mesh electrode that would withstand work in such conditions. And the author still needs to be encouraged for scientific courage.

Special student

We left the author of the proposals in Sakhalin. It's time to return to his fate.

Soon after the proposals were sent, Oleg Lavrentyev was demobilized from the army, sent to Moscow and became a first-year student at the Physics Department of Moscow State University. Available sources say (from his words) that he did it completely on his own, without the protection of any authorities.

"Instances", however, followed his fate. In September, Lavrentyev meets with ID Serbin, an official of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks and the recipient of his letters from Sakhalin. On his instructions, he describes his vision of the problem again, in more detail.

At the very beginning of the next year, 1951, the freshman Lavrentyev was summoned to the Minister of Measuring Instrumentation of the USSR Makhnev, where he met the minister himself and his reviewer A.D. Sakharov. It should be noted that the department headed by Makhnev had a rather abstract attitude to measuring instruments, its real purpose was to support the USSR's nuclear program. Makhnev himself was the secretary of the Special Committee, whose chairman was the all-powerful at that time L.P. Beria. Our student met him a few days later. Sakharov was again present at the meeting, but almost nothing can be said about his role in it.

According to the memoirs of O.A. Lavrentyev, he was preparing to tell the high-ranking chief about the bomb and the reactor, but Beria did not seem to be interested in this. The conversation was about the guest himself, his achievements, plans and relatives. “It was a bride,” Oleg Aleksandrovich summed up. - He wanted, as I understood it, to look at me and, possibly, at Sakharov, what kind of people we are. Apparently, the opinion was favorable."

The result of the "smotrin" was the indulgences unusual for a Soviet freshman. Oleg Lavrentyev was given a personal scholarship, a separate room was allocated for housing (albeit a small one - 14 square meters), two personal teachers in physics and mathematics. He was exempted from tuition fees. Finally, the delivery of the necessary literature was organized.

Soon the acquaintance with the technical leaders of the Soviet atomic program B.L. Vannikov, N.I. Pavlov and I.V. Kurchatov took place. Yesterday's sergeant, who during the years of service had not seen a single general even from afar, now talked on equal terms with two at once: Vannikov and Pavlov. True, the questions were asked mainly by Kurchatov.

It is very likely that Lavrentyev's proposals, after his acquaintance with Beria, were obediently given even too much importance. The Archive of the President of the Russian Federation contains a proposal addressed to Beria and signed by the aforementioned three interlocutors to create a "small theoretical group" for calculating O. Lavrentyev's ideas. Whether such a group was created, and if so, with what result, is now unknown.


In May, our hero received a pass to LIPAN - the Laboratory of Measuring Instruments of the Academy of Sciences, now the Institute. Kurchatov. The strange name of the time was also a tribute to general secrecy. Oleg was appointed as a trainee in the electrical equipment department with the task of getting acquainted with the work already underway on the MTP (magnetic thermonuclear reactor). As at the university, a personal guide was attached to the special guest, “a specialist in gas discharges, comradeAndrianov "- so reads a memo addressed to Beria.

Cooperation with LIPAN was already quite intense then. There they designed an installation with a plasma confinement by a magnetic field, which later became a tokamak, and Lavrentyev wanted to work on a modified version of an electromagnetic trap that went back to his Sakhalin thoughts. At the end of 1951, a detailed discussion of his project took place in LIPAN. Opponents did not find any mistakes in it and, on the whole, recognized the work as correct, but refused to implement it, having decided to “concentrate forces on the main direction”. In 1952, Lavrentyev prepares a new project with refined plasma parameters.

It should be noted that Lavrentyev at that moment thought that his proposal for the reactor was also belated, and colleagues from LIPAN were developing their own idea, which had come to their heads independently earlier. That the colleagues themselves hold a different opinion, he learned much later.

Your benefactor has died

On June 26, 1953, Beria was arrested and soon shot. Now one can only guess whether he had any specific plans for Oleg Lavrentyev, but the loss of such an influential patron had a very tangible effect on his fate.

“At the university, they not only stopped giving me an increased scholarship, but also“turned out”the tuition fees for the past year, practically leaving me without a livelihood,” Oleg Aleksandrovich said many years later. - I made my way to the reception of the new dean and in complete confusion heard: “Your benefactor has died. What do you want? " At the same time in LIPAN the admission was withdrawn, and I lost my permanent pass to the laboratory, where, according to the previous agreement, I was supposed to undergo pre-diploma practice, and then work. If the scholarship was later restored, then I never received admission to the institute.


After Lavrentyev's university, they did not take a job at LIPAN, the only place in the USSR where they were then engaged in thermonuclear fusion. Now it is impossible, and even senseless, to try to understand whether the reputation of "Beria's man" is to blame for this, some personal difficulties, or something else.

Our hero went to Kharkov, where a plasma research department was being created at the KIPT. There he focused on his favorite topic - electromagnetic plasma traps. In 1958, the C1 installation was launched, finally showing the viability of the idea. The next decade was marked by the construction of several more installations, after which Lavrent'ev's ideas began to be taken seriously in the scientific world.


In the seventies, it was planned to build and launch a large Jupiter installation, which was supposed to finally become a full-fledged competitor to tokamaks and stellarators built on other principles. Unfortunately, while the novelty was being designed, the situation around has changed. In order to save money, the installation has been halved. It took a redesign of the project and calculations. By the time it was completed, the technique had to be reduced by another third - and, of course, everything had to be recounted again. The prototype launched at last was quite functional, but, of course, it was far from full scale.


Oleg Alexandrovich Lavrentyev until the end of his days (he died in 2011) continued active research work, published a lot and, in general, was quite successful as a scientist. But the main idea of ​​his life has so far remained untested.

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