History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search


Inventory no. 44590 - Former Display Label


Signed "Norsk Hydro-Elektrisk Kvaelstofaktieselskab"
Glass phial (125mm x 22mm), held in a felt-lined nickel-plated cylindrical container with screw-on cap which, in turn, is stored in a block of wood. A viking ship, the firm's emblem, is engraved on the canister's cap.
Ordinary water contains minute amounts of heavy water or deuterium oxide (D2O), extracted by means of electrolysis on an industrial scale. The liquid is used as a moderator of neutrons in nuclear power plants and as a tracer in the study of chemical or biological processes. It was discovered by H. V. Urey, F. G. Brickwedde and G. M. Murphy in America in 1932, and was first prepared by G. N. Lewis and R. T. MacDonald.
The Norwegian Hydro-Electric Company was the only firm in the late thirties producing this substance in quantity because of the availability of cheap electricity. In early 1940 the French purchased the entire stock of 185 Kg. The Germans, who had also tried to buy it for their own atomic energy project, placed a large order with the firm. Shortly before the Germans invaded Paris, the French stock was moved to Britain in 26 cans. These were first stored in Wormwood Scrubs Prison and were then moved to Windsor Castle. During the war, heavy water was produced for the Allies in British Columbia.
The British and American scientists were worried that the Germans might produce the atomic bomb first. However, the German research was on a smaller scale, and its primary object appears to have been to generate electricity rather than to develop bombs. Germany's only source of heavy water was the Norsk hydro-electric plant. To be on the safe side, the Allies decided to destroy the plant in 1943. It was first damaged by sabotage in February, but production was soon restarted. The US Air Force responded by destroying the electricity-generating plant, whereupon the Germans decided to move the entire stock of heavy water to Germany. The ferry carrying the heavy water was sunk by the Norwegian Resistance in Lake Tunnsjö. This dramatic story has been the subject of a book and a film.
The origin of this sample is not known. Four similar ones are in the collection of the Science Museum in London.

Presented by Dr Paul W. Kent.

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