Like many modern technologies, 3D printing began as science fiction. In his 1945 short story Things Pass By, writer Murray Leinster described a process in which a robotic arm placed one layer of molten plastic on top of another to produce an object—a process that has since come to be known as additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. Although the concept didn’t become feasible until the 1970s, in recent years 3D printing has been used to fabricate automobile parts, construction materials, and even human organs, with new applications ever on the horizon.
At Los Alamos National Laboratory, 3D printing is used to create components for experiments related to everything from space exploration to stockpile stewardship, which ensures the reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent without resorting to nuclear testing. And it is also being used to make history tangible in a way that even Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer film cannot.
Los Alamos’ Visible team produces 3D simulations, videos, and other media that help elucidate aspects of the Laboratory’s mission and history. In 2016, the team released an app, “The Secret City: Project Y,” which allows users to explore 3D renderings of historic Manhattan Project sites. The app includes the Trinity site, where the world’s first atomic detonation took place, and the Gun Site, where Little Boy—the bomb detonated above Hiroshima in August of 1945—was developed.
“The goal is to make history come alive a little bit and educate people about things in a fun way,” says Jake Green, a 3D animator and game designer. “The idea is that if people see these sites in the app, not only does it educate them on the history of our country and the Laboratory, but it helps them realize there are so many historic things still around to explore.”
On a whim, Green decided to try feeding graphics from the app into the Visible team’s two 3D printers. The experiment resulted in scale plastic models of wartime Los Alamos, along with miniature busts of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s scientific director.
Prints such as these might make for exhibits at the Laboratory’s Bradbury Science Museum or elsewhere. Recent updates to “The Secret City” app have improved the quality of its graphics, which means that Green can now print Oppenheimer busts that are almost life-size. His latest Oppie even glows in the dark. ★
“The Secret City: Project Y,” and its companion app “Project Y Computing,” are available for free and to the public on Apple’s App Store and on Google Play.