The Huemul Project

Valarie Allman
March 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Left to right: Ronald Richter, Mario Báncora, and José Antonio Balseiro. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Huemul Project began in 1948 when Argentinian president, Juan Perón, funded Austrian scientist Ronald Richter (Fig. 1). Under the new government regime, Argentina sought industrial growth and economic independence. Perón looked to the European nations to fund emerging scientists as he had alienated most of the scientific community in his home country since the start of his presidency in 1946. [1] Through this process he met Ritcher - a former lab researcher and Nazi aircraft designer who had ideas of using nuclear energy to fuel aircrafts. [2] Perón flew Richter to Argentina and learned of the scientists true scientific desires. He believed he found a way that could promise limitless nuclear energy by controlling the power of the sun.

The Technology

Richter believed nuclear fusion was the energy of the future relative to nuclear fission, the only technology discovered as of 1938. While fission splits large nuclei of heavier elements such as uranium and plutonium, fusion works in a reciprocal manner by releasing energy due to forcing together the nuclei of lighter elements such as Hyrdogen. By using fusion and emulating the process that powers the sun, Richter strived to create an energy source solely off of cheap and readily available elements. If done correctly, the technique would create a limitless energy source. In order for the isotopes of lighter atoms to react properly there had to be extreme pressure and temperature equivalent to that of the sun. This equated to pressure billions times greater than the atmospheric pressure of Earth as well as temperatures of 15 million kelvin.

The Outcome

By 1951, $300 million dollars had been spent on the project to build a fusion container on Isla Huemul, off the shore of the picturesque Patagonian town of San Carlos de Bariloche. With 400 men working on the project, the bunker was made of 20,000 bags of cement, loud speakers, and a 50-tonne copper coil to create an 11 meters tall bunker for the project to run in secrecy. Just three years after the start of the project, Richter claimed to have performed his first successful experiment. A feat that would have been one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

While Perón boasted for the country's advancement in technology, Richter never published his experiments. For two years, he remained cryptic about his procedure and gave no insight into how he completed the desired temperature and pressure. In 1952, Perón assembled a team to investigate the experiments revealing that Richter was no where close to what he strived to achieve. The team discovered the highest temperature achieved in the project was 100,000 kelvin by feeding hydrogen into an electric arc where loud speakers increased the temperature using acoustic waves. As media sources caught wind of the truth, headlines circulated describing the news as "Argentina's atomic energy project has exploded with the force of a bursting soap bubble...". [3] The fate of the project resulted in embarrassment falling on the Argentinian science community and Richter being charged with contempt of Congress. Once released, he lived in obscurity until dying in 1991.

Argentina Now

In 1955, a physics institute was created leveraging the equipment from the Huemul project. Now 65 years after Richter's experiments, Argentina has a reputation for high-quality research. While the initial search for limitless energy spectacularly failed, the hunt for controlled nuclear fusion continues.

© Valarie Allman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. Turner and J. E. Miguens, Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983).

[2] R. Kidd, "I'll Give You Fusion in a Bottle," New Scientist 231, No. 3087, 38 (August 2016).

[3] E. A. Morrow, "Peron's Atom Dream Fades; Director Reportes Arrested; Argentine Dream on Atom Explodes," New York Times, 5 Dec 52.