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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 (#24653587)
    Can a string theorist explain why this won't work?, in simple terms please.
    • by TheSHAD0W (258774) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:47PM (#24653619) Homepage

      Because for every hobbyist who builds one of these hoping to get more power than they put in, there's someone in the background playing a violin...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by taustin (171655)

      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.

  • 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 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 Kagura (843695) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:44PM (#24653593)
    "A small subculture of amateur physicists and science-fiction fans -- fewer than 100 worldwide -- are building working perpetual motion devices at home. The designs are based on the work of Albert Michelson, co-proponent of luminiferous aether theory, from the 1890s. Some of these hobbyists hope similar devices can one day power the planet, but so far they consume more energy than they create."

    Good article.
    • 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).

  • by L. J. Beauregard (111334) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:48PM (#24653629)

    All known hydrogen fusion reactions produce strong neutron fluxes. Strong enough to kill, and death by radiation poisoning is not my idea of a fun time.

  • who built a tabletop farnsworth reactor a few years ago

    its technically challenging to build one of these, but not beyond the skillset and material list of a committed and persevering amateur science buff

    however, saying that once you build one you can work towards self-sustaining fusion is like saying after playing with legos you can go build a pyramid. well yea, you have the conceptualization down, but you still need to move heaven and earth and invest trillions

    having said that, what these guys are doing is still important in terms of awareness and getting the good word out. we NEED fusion power. to save us from pollution, global warming, petrodollar funded russian neoimperialism and islamic fundamentalism, etc.

    and one of these guys just one day may provide the mental spark to get working a real breakthrough in the field, or inspire a kid somewhere to wonder in awe, and he grows up to provide that mental spark of a breakthrough. anyone who doubts that is just way too jaded

    so i salute you amateur fusion researchers

    keep hope alive

    • by grahamd0 (1129971) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @01:28AM (#24655021)

      having said that, what these guys are doing is still important in terms of awareness and getting the good word out. we NEED fusion power. to save us from pollution, global warming, petrodollar funded russian neoimperialism and islamic fundamentalism, etc.

      We have plenty of fusion power.

      We've got a 1.989e30 kg fusion reactor producing approximately 386 billion billion megawatts of power.

      We just don't harness it very efficiently at the moment.

  • by syntaxglitch (889367) on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:54PM (#24653681)

    Despite the fact that this is a link to a non-technical publication's website, the Farnsworth Fusor [wikipedia.org] is a real fusion device and works basically how they describe it. What it is not, however, is anticipated to ever be a viable power source, and there are significant theoretical hurdles to prevent it from being viable relative to other approaches (and when you make any kind of fusion reactor seem plausible in comparison, you're probably not going anywhere). In my experience, most hobbyists are well aware of this and just enjoy the tinkering.

    The primary functions of a fusor are 1) Generate neutrons 2) Look really cool 3) Kill you with extremely high voltages if you screw up.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:57PM (#24653709)

    Focusing on Farnsworth fusors in an article written in part about fusion as a possible energy source seems as poorly researched as writing about steam engines in an article about internal combustion. The polywell [talk-polywell.org] seems be the heir apparent for serious work in energy out of the fusor lineage.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Zobeid (314469)

      I was wondering exactly the same thing. In my view the Polywell is the most interesting thing going on in fusion research these days, and it's a direct descendent from the kinds of devices these hobbyists are building.

  • Philo T. Farnsworth (Score:5, Interesting)

    by QuietLagoon (813062) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:03PM (#24653781)
    Now nearing the ripe age of fifteen, Philo Farnsworth turned his team of horses around at the edge of the field and surveyed his work. Before him lay his mowed hay field, clearly delineated rows cut in alternating directions. Suddenly the future hit him with a vision so startling he could hardly sit still: a vision of television images formed by an electron beam scanning a picture in horizontal lines....
    .

    Best book [eht.com] on the early days of television that I have read. The above quote is from page 126.

  • Fusors are Old News (Score:4, Interesting)

    by istartedi (132515) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:05PM (#24653799) Journal

    As the summary acknowledges, the fusor has been around for a while. If it were theoreticly possible to get net power gain, don't you think it would have been tried?

    I doubt many of the people experimenting with the fusor are seriously trying to get net power gain. It's useful as a neutron source. Thus, you could make isotopes with it. That's rather scary, and something that I'm sure a lot of people would not want advertised; but it's also common knowledge for anybody who has an interest in nuclear science.

  • by ArchieBunker (132337) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:09PM (#24653829) Homepage

    I can't fucking wait for the day cold fusion arrives and we get to tell all those assholes in the middle east "Hey heres a fusion reactor that lasts for a century and costs $500. We'll no longer be needing your oil"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Right! No plastics, no chemicals, no lubricants !!!
      Idiot!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Urkki (668283)

        Right! No plastics, no chemicals, no lubricants !!!
        Idiot!

        All these can be manufactures from just about anything with carbon and hydrogen. It just takes energy, so as long as there's oil to be pumped, it's cheaper to use the oil. It would even be possible (though not worth it) to manufacture stuff equal to crude oil.

        And then of course there are oils directly from plants. This might be a big thing in the future, when genetic engineering makes it possible to design plants to produce oils with desired properties and desired extra chemicals in them. After all, protein

  • WMD (Score:5, Funny)

    by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:11PM (#24653843)
    A small subculture of amateur physicists and science-fiction fans -- fewer than 100 worldwide -- are building working nuclear-fusion reactors at home.

    In other news, a small subculture of amateur neoconservatives are building working homemade tanks, fighter jets and cruise missiles in order to seek out and destroy these Weapons Of Mass Destruction before its too late and a mushroom cloud appears in somebody's basement
    • by Jesrad (716567) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @05:51AM (#24656173) Journal

      "before its too late and a mushroom cloud appears in somebody's basement"

      I for one cannot wait for the moment one of those amateur fusion tinkerers vaporizes his own house in one humongous boom. I'll be there and cheering when it happens.

      Do you know why ?

      Because it'll signal the end of a whole era. Have you followed the research domain of LENR/CANR - formerly known as "cold fusion" - over the years, for example ? There you have thousands of labs all around the planet making endless refinements and taking almost infinite precautions so they make the most impossibly-deniable measurement of some excess heat when electrolyzing half a pint of water.

      This is madness ! That kind of exercise in pointless "due process" is an incredible waste of time ! That's at best undergrad routine, it should be reserved for the time when LENR/CANR/LANR/whatever-it-is makes it to mainstream acceptance, and be funded with leftover budget while the big names focus on the Big Things like earning a Nobel rewriting our understanding of chemistry and building net power generators and licencing the tech all around.

      What those guys really need to build acceptance and make a true breakthrough is one of them to go in a huge boom that razes a whole wing of the electrochemistry department building, a boom so big no one can pretend with a straight face that the excess energy in the beer-mug-sized jar was just a measurement fluke. A large fireball rising amidst flying debris and thunder ! What better pan-in-the-face demonstration of useable excess energy or net power gain can you wish for ?

      How many brilliant chemist careers were started by exploding hydrogen-filled balloons and/or dumping raw sodium metal in water ? This is what we really need: more big booms for science's future ! More awe in the eyes of the passers-by ! Nuclear technology did not build such a pervasive recognition in the mainstream throughout the 50s by merely splitting some atoms inside a heavy graphite box, but by expanding radioactive mushrooms of fiery hell to the stratosphere !

  • by tgd (2822) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:14PM (#24653867)

    I don't think anyone building these expects to ever have a net power output from them -- that's not the point. The point is to be able to say you built a fusion reactor, or as others have said to generate isotopes for other experimenting, etc.

    IMO, a more important area of amateur and admittedly fringe scientific research around fusion and fusion-like reactions is the several hundred teams that still continue to this day to investigate what the heck is going on with low temperature fusion. Tons of progress is being made in the field, and some reasonable theories are starting to form. There's a lot of unknowns, but helium is regularly produced, neutrons are regularly produced and more interesting from a theoretical standpoint, lots of atoms are changing from one element to another...

    Its like the 1700's experimenting with chemistry. Lots of people doing lots of very cool and interesting experiments and getting lots of very interesting results, even if we (humanity, not me personally) still don't quite get it.

    IMO, its an aspect of science we miss in the modern world. These days we just assume we understand things pretty well and experimenting is about engineering or proving a theory. Its cool there are still areas of fundamental science experimentation going on where we just don't get what is happening and have no idea what might happen with the next variant.

  • by adric (91323) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:35PM (#24654043)
    Now if they could put it in the form of a suppository...
  • by jpellino (202698) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:40PM (#24654069)

    Really embarrassing or REALLY embarrassing.

  • by Profane MuthaFucka (574406) <busheatskok@gmail.com> on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:43PM (#24654093) Homepage Journal

    Confucius say "Man who build fusion reactor at home flux his wife instead of his secretary."

  • by cashman73 (855518) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:51PM (#24654135) Journal
    Carl Willis, a 27-year-old doctoral student at Ohio State University, who keeps his fusor just a few feet from his bed.

    Apparently, he never wants to get laid ... EVER!

  • brilliant (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Goldsmith (561202) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:06PM (#24654255)

    As someone who has worked in fusion, there is significant radiation created by the process. The larger reactors can't run on the ideal deuterium/tritium mixture because it would irradiate entire cities while the reactor burned. I would not want a small one in my garage. The reactor I worked on was in a concrete bunker a fair distance away from any people. It was also the size of a large house.

    If you want to live in the future and be on the cutting edge of science, go to grad school and study physics (you're never too old). There are not enough people seriously studying fusion. You'll get paid to work on reactors (big or small) which may have a commercial future. We wear snarky shirts that no one understands too.

  • farnsworth (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:20PM (#24654363)

    Why isn't this tagged with "goodnewseveryone"?

  • by coldsalmon (946941) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @12:11AM (#24654673)
    If we just gathered together enough matter, it would start fusing on its own through gravitational force. Using this method, we could create a gigantic fusion reactor in space, and then collect its radiation and convert it to electricity. It would be kind of like harnessing the solar power of the sun...oh wait...
  • by damburger (981828) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @04:12AM (#24655727)

    I don't mean getting Mr. Fusor to give Mrs. Fusor a special cuddle, I mean using the thing as a neutron source to produce fission fuel.

    I'm guessing not, as the thing would be more tightly controlled.

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