Tuesday, June 29, 2010

DIY Fusion: There goes the neighborhood



The BBC ran a story last week detailing how an amateur physicist from Brooklyn had successfully built his own fusion reactor in an empty warehouse in the heart of a residential neighborhood. In the video above you see a bubble detector picks up a tiny-dot, evidencing fast neutrons have been generated and hence fusion has occurred.

I remember reading the story of the so-called radioactive Boy Scout a few years ago, a disenchanted teenager had managed to create a radium gun in his parents shed using americium-241 scraps from smoke detectors. In his attempt to build a breeder reactor, he nearly killed himself and irradiated his entire neighborhood to the point that the EPA had to disassemble the shed and put it in hazardous waste drums.

Those kinds of nuclear materials aren't produced from fusion so it isn't dangerous in the same way, and that's part of the appeal. Two light nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nuclei and the process lets off a tremendous amount of power. While no one's managed to build a reactor that generates more power than it uses, fusion is widely regarded as a fuel of the future.

Somehow, I doubt a web designer from Brooklyn pumping 30,000 volts of electricity into a device he assembled himself is going to be the one to crack the case. I'm guessing he won't harm anyone (good luck explaining to your spouse why you're dropping $40K on a science project in an empty warehouse), but some of the best and brightest minds in physics have been working on this for a generation and it's thought to be another 50 years away. So, I wouldn't bet on him.

And he's not the only amateur doing this either. In fact, according to the BBC story he's the 38th person to independently produce fusion in a homemade reactor. I'm not saying I don't think it's awesome, but I thought the radioactive Boy Scout route was cool too – of course minus the inherent suicidal nature and general threat to the neighborhood.

2 comments:

  1. He's using a design by Robert Bussard, who helped invent the tokamak and later decided it would never work. His "polywell" design is currently being tested by the Navy, and there are a lot of people who think we might actually get practical fusion out of it within the next five years. Things seem to be going well.

    To get net power out of the polywell, it has to be several meters wide, which will cost a couple hundred million to build. This guy probably won't manage that, but he may well provide valuable test data and help prove whether the idea works.

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