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Amateur Scientists Seek Fusion Reaction 401

Posted by kdawson
from the things-that-hopefully-do-not-go-boom dept.
ElvaWSJ writes "A small subculture of amateur physicists and science-fiction fans — fewer than 100 worldwide — are building working nuclear-fusion reactors at home. The designs are based on the work of Philo T. Farnsworth, an inventor of television, from the 1960s. Some of these hobbyists hope similar reactors can one day power the planet, but so far they consume more energy than they create."
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Amateur Scientists Seek Fusion Reaction

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:43PM (#24653589)

    Does anyone remember the "radioactive boyscout"?

    David Hahn to make his own reactor (breeder, i think). He accumulated quantities of radium and tritium from smoke detectors and lantern mantles in a shed. The DOE had to lock down his parents whole house and yard to clean it up.

    David Haun [wikipedia.org]

  • by taustin (171655) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:47PM (#24653621) Homepage Journal

    No string theory needed. The reason it takes more power than it produces is that the fuel collides with stuff other than just other fuel, like anodes and cathodes needed to make the fusion happen.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by taustin (171655) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:49PM (#24653641) Homepage Journal

    No, this really works as advertised. It's a high school science faire level of complexity and cost (if you're willing to deal with stray neutrons). For practical reasons, it can't be made to produce more energy than it consumes, is all. The principles have been known since the 20s. Robert Bussard (of Bussard Ramjet fame) had patents on it.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by lgw (121541) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:58PM (#24653719) Journal

    But the stray neutrons (or other energetic particles, depending on the reaction) are the real problem with fusion as a power source. To quote TFA:

    Fusion advocates say reactors would be relatively clean, generating virtually no air pollution and little long-lived radioactive waste. Today's nuclear power plants, in contrast, are fission-based, meaning they split atoms and create a highly radioactive waste that can take millennia to decompose.

    The spent fuel from a fission reactor is just not that hard to deal with - park it in a contianment area as robust as the reactor itself for 5-10 years, and you're left with not-very-much not-very-radioactive waste that could be easily disposed of, if it weren't so valuable that we insist on keeping it instead.

    It's the rest of the reactor that's the serious problem. Depending on the reactor design, quite a bit of the reactor structure can become radioactive over time.

    Fusion is going to have the same problem. Even if you have a reactor vessel the size of a washing machine, you're going to need significant shielding, an energy transfer mechanism (water leading to a turbine or something), structural elements, etc. Surem the problem with spent fuel goes away, but the problem with speant reactors remains. Not something you'd want in everyone's basement.

  • Re:Really? (Score:3, Informative)

    by domatic (1128127) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:15PM (#24653881)

    Farnsworth fusors are also used as a laboratory source of neutrons. For that application it only matters that they produce sufficient neutrons of the required energy.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:19PM (#24653907) Journal

    Are these the same yahoos that post videos of "perpetual" motion machines on Youtube?

    No. Wikipedia is your friend. [wikipedia.org]

    Farnsworth - Hirsch - Meeks fusors are quite real and effective. They're easy to build even by hobbyists using readily obtainable parts. Commercial versions serve as controllable neutron sources. Fusion neutron output of up to a trillion per second has been reported and rates in the billions per second are easily obtainable. To date it is estimated that Farnsworth-Hirsch-Meeks fusors have produced far more total fusion neutrons than all other non-bomb fusion devices combined.

    Downside is that they involve ions moving in a trajectory past a metal electrode, which they must pass without hitting many thousands of times on the average before they participate in a fusion reaction. Hitting the electrode loses the energy used to create the ion and attempt to confine it, dumping the energy as heat in the electrode. Getting the electrode to be sufficiently "transparent" to achieve breakeven seems to be a lost cause.

    Bussard's family of Polywell fusion machine designs apparently started as an attempt to steer the ions around the inner electrode of a Farnsworth-Hirsch-Meeks machine using a magnetic field. But it has since developed into a different (though related) principle: Use the magnetic field from the self-shielding magnet/electrodes to confine electrons (which are much easier to handle), creating a high-density space charge in the center of the machine. Use the electrostatic field of the electrons to attract and confine the ions in this region at high density and temperature, resulting in fusion. The magnetic field still shields the inner structures and the field is convex toward the plasma, limiting the plasma instabilities the plague "conventional" fusion machines. [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:23PM (#24653941)

    Hahn was arrested [nwsource.com] last year for trying to steal smoke detectors from his apartment complex.

    Judging from his mugshot [blogspot.com] he looks to be suffering the effects of radiation exposure.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:26PM (#24653963)

    The intensity of the neutron flux is just a matter of how much fusion you are dealing wiht. A single neutron is not going to kill you any more than all the cosmic rays that hit you throghout the day. While it is correct that a large neutron dose would be bad for you, it is completely a matter of dose, so as long as you know what you are doing and take precautions to not generate excessive neutron fluxes you should be fine.

    It is also perfectly possible to shield the device using materials that are good at absorbing neutrons, such as hydrogen and boron.

    Yes, radiation can kill you in large quantities. As can paint stripper, inhaling the vapours of superglue and being careless with a chainsaw, but that does not stop people from using those things. You do need to know what you are doing, and you do need to take precautions, but radiation is not some ocult spawn of satan that any amount of it will make your skin turn green and ressurect dead puppies into zombies.

  • Real fusion (Score:5, Informative)

    by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:28PM (#24653979) Homepage
    These are real fusion devices. The last time I judged the national science fair contest, there were not one, but two fusion reactors-- one put together from parts scrounged from junkyards.

    There was an article by Tom Ligon in Analog back in September 1998-- it's available on the web [fusor.net] if you're interested in more details.

    This is pretty cool. I love amateur science.

    With that said, note that there is a vast difference between merely demonstrating fusion, and producing usable power by fusion, roughly similar to the gap between the glow of your old radium watch dial, and a nuclear bomb. But if the hobbiests can learn to scale it up... now, that would be cool.

  • Michelson (Score:5, Informative)

    by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:37PM (#24654047) Homepage

    " The designs are based on the work of Albert Michelson, co-proponent of luminiferous aether theory, from the 1890s."

    It's worth reminding people that, whatever his original views of luminiferous aether, Michelson was one of the great experimentalists of the 19th century and his name is most firmly associated with the experiment that's widely credited with experimentaly destroying the credibility of aether theories [virginia.edu].

    (It's still possible to come up with aether theories even with the Michelson-Morley results (and the results of hundreds of other people who replicated and refined that result), but it's much more difficult, and the resulting theories end up rather hard to credit.) I assume that the original use of the word "proponent" was a typo).

  • Re:Bring on fusion! (Score:2, Informative)

    by Tuqui (96668) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:39PM (#24654059) Homepage

    I can't fucking wait for the day cold fusion arrives

    This type of fusion is not in the Cold category.

  • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:59PM (#24654197)

    It doesn't work that way. You can get energy out of fusion and fission until you hit iron at the middle, which is at an energy well. The sun will end up a lump of iron once it finishes fusing due to this fact.

    Actually, the sun isn't massive enough to create iron. It will instead end up as a lump of mostly degenerate carbon and oxygen.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by seven of five (578993) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:22PM (#24654375) Homepage
    Robert Bussard (of Bussard Ramjet fame) had patents on it.

    The patents apply to a fancier version called the Polywell. Polywell attempts to cut losses to the point where net power is possible. As far as I know, no hobbyist has attempted that one yet. It's a much more expensive design that, depending on the fuel, would generate truly lethal doses of neutrons, and would need lots of shielding.
  • by Gideon Fubar (833343) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:53PM (#24654571) Journal
    David Hahn as a teenager [mvgroup.org]

    That does actually appear to be him in the photo. Notably (according to wikipedia), he has refused testing and medical treatment for radiation poisoning on many occasions.
  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by taustin (171655) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @12:16AM (#24654693) Homepage Journal

    But the stray neutrons (or other energetic particles, depending on the reaction) are the real problem with fusion as a power source.

    That actually depends on what your fuel source is. The common science fair level project uses hydrogen (not deuterium, even), and produces, IIRC, neutrons. There are other fuels possible, and some don't produce much of anything nasty. IIRC, Lithium 3 on one side and Lithium 4 on the other produces stable helium isotopes, and electricity, and absolutely nothing else.

    There are still issues with fuel that misses other fuel striking internal components of the reaction chamber, which can produce some radioactivity, but getting to the self-sustaining point will also greatly reduce this sorts of unwanted collisions and ther resulting radioactive byproducts.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning.netzero@net> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @03:05AM (#24655443) Homepage Journal

    Actually, Bussard was trying to use a Boron-11 fuel matrix that doesn't release neutrons in the same fashion as Deuterium fusion does. One of the reasons for this is precisely to help cut down on the neutron flux coming from the reactor.

    His design goal was to use it as a direct drop-in replacement for boilers at coal-fired power plants, using similar sorts of shielding and precautions as would be already in place for such a facility. Water in the boiler itself would offer what extra protection would be needed, and radiation levels for released radioactive products would be lower than would be typical for a coal plant as well.

    FYI, coal plants release far more radioactive waste per kWh generated than the worst and most inefficient nuclear power plants... with perhaps the singlar exception of Chernobyl. Even that I'm not 100% certain of.

    This said, you are correct that the fusion rate in a Polywell is something of a much greater concern if you actually got one going, and would be leathal if it used traditional fusion fuel targets.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Beriaru (954082) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @05:10AM (#24655949)

    create a highly radioactive waste that can take millennia to decompose.

    Bullshit. You have nuclear waste highly radioactive, or cold waste which take millennia to decompose.

    In fact, the nuclear waste can be recycled into fissible material, hot subproducts (very appreciated by the pharmaceutic industry), and cold waste which take millennia to decompose.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:2, Informative)

    by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @05:13AM (#24655957) Homepage

    Lithium 3 + Lithium 4 ... fusion ... always raises the number of protons.

    What you say makes little sense, the atomic number of the resulting element after fusion is higher. So Li3 + Li4 should give C7, which is a stable isotope.

    It is, btw the conventi on to give the total number of nucleonic particles in the isotope number. So it's probably Li6 and Li7 you're talking about.

  • by pla (258480) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @05:28AM (#24656057) Journal
    Judging from his mugshot he looks to be suffering the effects of radiation exposure

    Just to clarify - Skin lesions like that don't result from radiation poisoning far in the past (though on the short term from acute exposure, perhaps).

    More likely, he inhaled/ingested/absorbed waaaaay more Thorium than does the body good, which does lead to skin lesions (not to mention other nuissances like bone cancer).

    Remember kids, as much of a PITA we all consider OSHA, their standards usually err on the side of the employer, not actual safety. If they say "use a dust mask" to work with something, you probably want nothing short of a negative-pressure glove-box.
  • by DerWulf (782458) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @06:28AM (#24656333)
    gravity is required in the sun and as far as our efforts go it seems mandatory, too, in order to harness fusion for energy generation. As it stands now, fusion is just a very expensive way to create helium ...
  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @07:09AM (#24656539)

    Here's an honest question: where do our iron deposits come from?

    Um ... from dead stars that had enough mass to produce iron (as well as even heavier elements) as they died. This means stars that were much more massive than our little sun.

  • by Nazlfrag (1035012) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @07:44AM (#24656717) Journal

    No, you are fusing two atoms together to create a larger atom. Gravity plays no part in this reaction. The resulting atom has less mass than the initial atoms, and the excess mass is converted into energy. E=mc^2 and all that.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:3, Informative)

    by jeremyp (130771) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @07:55AM (#24656769) Homepage Journal

    IANA physicist but,

    an object that is attracted to magnets in a magnetic field has potential energy much like an object suspended above the ground has potential energy by virtue of being in a gravitational field. In both cases, the energy of the object just before hitting the magnet/ground is the same as the work required to separate it from the magnet/ground and restore it to its starting position (assuming all energy conversions are 100% efficient).

  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:01AM (#24656797)

    So, the Wright brothers should not have been able to invent the airplane because they were incapable of building a Boeing 747 in their little cottage?

    FAIL.

    You can build a perfectly working airplane that fits on a kitchen table. Granted, it might not transport a person, but it's otherwise completely functional and airworthy.

    Next?

  • Jungle? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Paolone (939023) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:11AM (#24656857)

    expensive solar pannels which have to be replaced regularly and block all the light from the ground below them making it useless for much else

    Well, Arecibo radiotelescope opponents said the same and, lo and behold, under the reflector panels there's a bloody jungle.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning.netzero@net> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:19AM (#24656913) Homepage Journal

    I said per kilowatt-hour produced. Geesh... did you even pay attention to what I had to say?

    Chernobyl was awful, and I don't dispute that. I also noted it was a major exception to the general rule. The one thing that makes Chernobyl so incredibly awful is due to the fact that all of the material is concentrated in one place. The reason I hesitate about how damaging it was in comparison to coal is due to the fact that Chernobyl is not only a major facility, but that it is still supplying electricity to the Grid in Eastern Europe.

    It is likely that Chernobyl would beat out a coal plant using sources particularly high in radioactive elements in terms of kilowatt-hours of energy produced, but I don't think it would be several orders of magnitude higher. Keep in mind that the coal plants spew this "waste" willy-nilly all over the entire area where they are located, and over the course of decades and not all at once like the Chernobyl disaster did. I also lack all of the specific numbers to do a strict comparison.

    That facility is also an example of awful engineering that simply wouldn't happen in the regulatory environment of western governments, but that is a separate issue.

    As far as citations or evidence, I could give dozens here. Here are a couple that perhaps you ought to read if you don't want to believe little old me:

    At least so far as some "common sense" stuff, keep in mind that coal comes from underground sources and that often that coal is mixed with a whole bunch of other elements, including nearly every naturally occurring radioactive element on the Earth. Trace amounts of Uranium alone is sufficient to spread huge amounts of low-level radiation over nearly all of the soot fall-out that comes from the burning of coal... and that goes right up the chimney.

    BTW, as far as the nuclear industry being aware of this... it has been "common knowledge" for decades. They have used this argument, but very few people are really paying attention. Certainly not the "greens" that get into an uproar over the construction of nuclear power plants. This isn't in the major news media outlets because it isn't really even news. There isn't anything "new" about this sort of information, even if it may be a revelation to you.

  • by lm317t (971782) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:20AM (#24656927) Homepage
    No, please read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-energy_equivalence [wikipedia.org].

    Specifically:

    In nuclear fusion roughly 0.3% of the mass of fused atoms is converted to active energy. In thermonuclear weapons (see nuclear weapon yield) some of the bomb mass is casing and non-reacting components, so the efficiency in converting passive energy to active energy, at 6 kilotons TNT equivalent energy output per kilogram of bomb mass (or 6 megatons per metric ton bomb mass), does not exceed 0.03%.

  • by Prune (557140) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:29AM (#24656991)

    On the other hand, a fusor derivative, the polywell, is expected to be a power source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:2, Informative)

    by drakono (1339167) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:23AM (#24657471)
    Also, the link mentions the radiated water affecting beaches...nevermind that just GOING to the beach means you'll take in more radiation in one day than you'd get living next door to a nuclear plant all year. Oh, and if you FLY to the beach, you can add more to that total. (And airline pilots don't develop mutations.)

    Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy [amazon.com], written by a former skeptic. Read it. Everybody. Please.
  • Re:Good grief... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Mjec (666932) <slashdot@mj[ ]net ['ec.' in gap]> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:39AM (#24657611) Homepage Journal

    By "radioactive waste" I think GP was referring to waste that is radioactive, like C-14 (in various forms, including soot and CO2). Technically true. The comparison is entirely unfair, however, because molar quantity of radioactive material per KWh is not a measure of danger. Gamma energy released per sq km due to radioactive decay per KWh is probably better - though that's still not quite capturing it.

    You have to look at the type of radiation, the energy of the radiation, the amount of the for a given unit of substance-energy-density, the longevity of the radioactive substance... it's all pretty complicated.

  • by MightyYar (622222) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:41AM (#24657637)

    block all the light from the ground below them making it useless for much else

    To be fair, most installations seem to be either on a roof or in the desert.

  • by Mjec (666932) <slashdot@mj[ ]net ['ec.' in gap]> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:47AM (#24657709) Homepage Journal

    And resistance is IR^2, damn!, I mean : futile. :)

    I'm only doing this because I love to nitpick, but I think you can see your problem. Resistance is V/I - ohmicly anyway.

  • by harrkev (623093) <kfmsd@@@harrelsonfamily...org> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @11:40AM (#24659425) Homepage

    Actually it is that last bit that probably does it, the large quantity of emitted energy that ends up being recycled to maintain the reaction. That is the difficult bit with a Farnsworth Fusor

    For those who may not know how a fusor works...

    You need to get hydrogen to slam into each other very hard to have fusion. One traditional way to do it is to make a magnetic "bottle" to contain everything. This is hard to do, because the gas does not like to be compressed, and can squirt out the edges if your field is not incredibly strong and consistent. This is kind of like squeezing a hand full of jelly. This is the "traditional" approach. See HERE [wikipedia.org].

    A fusor, on the other hand, takes a different approach. It uses a static electric field. The theory is that, if you ionize the hydrogen, it has a positive charge. So, you put it in a roon with a large electric charge. The hydrogen will accelerate towards the negative-charged region and keep on going all the way through. Once it passes through, the negative charge is behind it, so it starts to slow down, and eventually reverse direction and go back to the charge again at high speed. If you get enough ions doing this, eventually some of them will hit head-on in the middle with enough velocity to fuse. Simple, no? Pretty pictures available HERE [wikipedia.org].

    There are only two problems. The first (and most serious) is that the region of negative charge is usually created by a bunch of wires welded together in a soccer-ball shape. You put a strong negative charge on the wires, and you have an instant negative region of space to attract the hydrogen ions. This works well, but some of the hydrogen ions hit the wires of the ball itself, which rob the entire system of energy. Those ions have to oscillate thousands or millions of times through that region before they, by chance, happen to hit another ion. If the ion hits the wire before hitting another ion, then it's purpose in life has failed. If there was only a way to create a static electric field without those pesky wires.

    The other (less serious) problem is, even if you achieve over-unity energy, how do you extract energy from a system like this? The most obvious answer is heat (steam turbines, etc.), but the system (and those little wires) can only take so much heat before melting. Fusors (if I am not mistaken) are very good at producing neutrons, helium, and maybe X-rays. It is pretty hard to get energy out of those.

  • by Some_Llama (763766) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @02:27PM (#24662035) Homepage Journal

    "one as backup for when clouds make the shitty solar power plants useless."

    yah solar is so Dependant on absolutely clear skies, that's why they installed one in the roof of London City Hall.

    http://www.london.gov.uk/gla/city_hall/solar-power/index.jsp [london.gov.uk]

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:3, Informative)

    by pbhj (607776) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @05:05PM (#24664485) Homepage Journal

    Few other factoids - Chernobyl's output to date is about 55 years (their are 4 reactors, opened in stages, closed in stages between 1970-2000) of maximum 1000MW production, so about 400TWh total.

    Drax a UK coal fired power station opened in the 70s produces about 24TWh annually (7% of the demand apparently).

    So by your consideration Drax has "released" at least twice the "radioactive waste" of Chernobyl. Having lived not that far from Drax for my first 18 years of life I find your definition of radioactive waste to be lacking somewhat.

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