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Amateur Scientists Seek Fusion Reaction 401

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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  • Re:Really? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @09:50PM (#24653645)

    People do not build the reactors to get energy. One of the reasons they are built is to see a fusion reaction, which is quite impressive. There are some videos on youtube.

  • 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 Kagura ( 843695 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:03PM (#24653771)
    Solar fusion works by extreme compression due to the gravitational force... and if you were referring to the orbits themselves, it's ridiculously well-established that you can't gain free energy out of a gravitational system.*

  • 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 Jordan ez ( 1270898 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:20PM (#24653919)
    Except this has nothing to do with violating conservation of energy. Tell the sun you can't get a surplus of energy out of fusion.
  • by NotBornYesterday ( 1093817 ) * on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:22PM (#24653933) Journal
    Yeah, but "more out than put in" is shorthand here for "more power generation from the fusion than power needed to start and maintain the reaction", not "find a loophole in the laws of thermodynamics"
  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:31PM (#24654001) Homepage Journal

    No, no, no. It's not "almost" fusion. It is fusion. It is almost a fusion generator. That doesn't mean fusion isn't occurring. It means that the reaction is not self-sustaining. There's a huge difference. Saying that it isn't fusion is like saying that a match placed in a sealed jar and set ablaze using a laser isn't really fire because it consumes all the oxygen and burns out and there's no way to add more oxygen....

  • by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:39PM (#24654055)

    Homemade fusors are not likely to have really dangerous levels of neutron radiation.

    The principal danger in fusors is X-Ray radiation. It's produced in generous amounts and can kill you just as good as another types of penetrating radiation.

  • by coopaq ( 601975 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:49PM (#24654125)

    I bet they can't fucking wait for you to tell them too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @10:56PM (#24654171)

    and if you were referring to the orbits themselves, it's ridiculously well-established that you can't gain free energy out of a gravitational system.*

    ... you mean like dropping a whole lot of water through some turbines?

    Yeah you're right, that'd never work

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:08PM (#24654283)

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

  • by TheSHAD0W ( 258774 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:12PM (#24654311) Homepage

    No, no, no. Seriously. It's a limitation of the design, not the idea of a fusion reactor.

    Bussard's "whiffleball" reactor design looks promising, and there are a few others which may succeed, but building one of those which will actually generate power is (unfortunately) financially out of the reach of any mere hobbyist.

  • by GaryPatterson ( 852699 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:15PM (#24654341)

    That's not free, when you consider the bigger picture. There's energy used getting the water up to the starting point (heat, etc), the difference is that we're not paying for it directly.

    In a more-or-less closed system, like a solar system, you don't get free energy from gravity.

  • by Anenome ( 1250374 ) on Monday August 18, 2008 @11:27PM (#24654397)
    Most of these experiments deal with softball sized reactors, essentially, and then imagine that scaling them up will increase their efficiency when the fact is that scaling them up makes them operate worse because the neutrons generated can only travel so far before they are block by something. What I'd like to see is a Fusor reactor continually shrunken down. If you could get it to the size of a pinhead or so I bet it would produce a net energy gain.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @12:00AM (#24654597)

    ...but building one of those which will actually generate power is (unfortunately) financially out of the reach of any mere hobbyist.

    Right! Which is pre-cise-ly why mere hobbyists were totally unimportant when steam engines were superseded by explosion/electric engines, when electricity superseded town gas, or when heavier-than-air craft superseded dirigibles, or when modern biochemicals/genetics/pharmaceutics took off after the '70s. And to the whole transistor -> chip -> microcompting discontinuity thing.

    No 'amateurs' there, no sir-ee. No bycicle mechanics either. Or cofee plantation heirs engineering in Paris. Nooo-sir !

    What's more, personal fortunes were much greater and lives-of-leisure more common (and acceptable) in those days than in our own more proletarian and democratic (or board-cratic) era.

    So its quite improbable that anyone nowadays will have enough money and free time available to turn these 'hobbies' into 'serious' research. No free time. No wealthy patrons. And resistance is IR^2, damn!, I mean : futile. :)

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @12:57AM (#24654887)

    I don't think it's a matter of budget. If these older fusion reactor designs could have been tweaked to produce usable power, it would have been done by now by researchers who do have sufficient funding. Many national governments would be extremely interested in this, as would many private companies. I think it's pretty safe to assume that after all these decades, if people haven't figured out how to make these reactors produce power, it's just not going to happen.

    This doesn't mean no one will ever make a fusion reactor that produces usable power, just not with these antiquated designs. Someone needs to come up with a new reactor design.

    Trying to use these old designs is like trying to build a modern warship out of wood. For a long time, people thought that boats could only be made with wood, but eventually someone figured out how to make them out of steel instead. Only an idiot would try to get steel-hulled boat performance out of a wood hull now.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @01:47AM (#24655093)

    What he is doing is real science. All the time you see arguments that people should believe in Science because it's real and tested, and that you shouldn't believe the bible because it's just a book. But how do many scientists operate? They read stuff in books and believe it. Do they do the experiments themselves to verify the science? Or do they just read in a book about somebody else who did an experiment?

    Then you get somebody like this who gets out there and does his own experiments, actually tries things out to see what happens. He's a real scientist. So if you wanna be a scientist, get out there and do some experiments! And if you want to believe the bible, do some bible experiments! Try reading a book, and doing what it says, and see what happens. Real science.

  • by Cecil ( 37810 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @02:10AM (#24655201) Homepage

    Yes, you are correct about exceeding critical mass, but keep in mind that simply having a supercritical mass is still a long way from having anything that will do anything spectacular like explode. A supercritical mass would be much happier to simply melt itself (and everything it's in contact with) into a molten and highly radioactive goo. It can take a long time for this to happen if the mass is not far above critical, plenty of time to disassemble or disable it.

    Not to say it's particularly safe, either, you'll probably die of radiation poisoning not too long afterwards, like the two scientists who accidentally let the "demon core" go supercritical [wikipedia.org] back in the 40s.

  • by tenco ( 773732 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @02:41AM (#24655315)
    The sun's fusion reaction just turns one form of energy (matter) into another (radiation). No surplus.
  • Re:Good grief... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jacquesm ( 154384 ) <j&ww,com> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @02:46AM (#24655333) Homepage

    No work is being done, so therefore no energy consumption is required.

    By the same token glue would be producing energy by making two things stick to each other...

  • by Urkki ( 668283 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @02:53AM (#24655379)

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

    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, proteins can manufacture just about anything, it's just a matter of desiging the proteins to produce the molecule you want. The rest (converting the protein to DNA and inserting it into a plant genome so that it works) should be possible with today's crude genetic technologies, even.

  • Re:Real fusion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Teancum ( 67324 ) <[ten.orezten] [ta] [gninroh_trebor]> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @03:14AM (#24655505) Homepage Journal

    There are some hard limits to what a typical IEC fusion reactor can produce... as the "grid" that encloses the fusion core also tends to absorb some of the particles that are needed to sustain the reaction.

    What the IEC (Internal Electrostatic Confinement) reactor does really well is produce a stable neutron source that can be turned on and off with a switch. There are some very useful applications for such a device in terms of nuclear physics research and medical treatments where this would have tremendous value even if you can't reach anything even near a break-even energy production for the device.

    For a medial device, it is really nice in terms of being able to have a neutron source that can be turned off, pulled apart for maintenance, and when the equipment is de-commissioned or surplussed you don't need to get deal with radioactive waste disposal. It can also be installed without having to get special permits from the Atomic Energy Commission.

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

    by Psion ( 2244 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @03:50AM (#24655657)
    I don't see anything in that link except typical Greenpeace alarmism confounding ridiculously trivial releases of radiation with "millions of litres" of radioactive water. Sure, the water might be slightly radioactive, but so is the carbon-14 in your bones -- what of it? Why don't they give us a calibrated measurement of the radiation in the released waste and put it into perspective relating to other forms of radiation? My guess is because that wouldn't serve to advance their anti-nuke FUD agenda.
  • Re:Really? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hughk ( 248126 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @04:00AM (#24655681) Journal

    Its one of the most interesting educational projects in modern science that isn't illegal (yet).

    Great sentiment but I can see this changing, very quickly when the DHS realises that you have a fusion reactor in your dorm-room/basement. They will get nervous even if the reaction is non self-sustaining. In any case, those neutrons are dangerous, aren't they?

  • by HungryHobo ( 1314109 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @05:18AM (#24655981)

    gravity energy?

    the energy comes from changing hydrogen into helium. Gravity is not needed for fusion.

    Hmm... I wonder which people would prefer to have, 10 square killometers of 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 or a single reactor burning a remarkably clean fuel we have in almost unlimited quantities.

  • by Kupfernigk ( 1190345 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @06:04AM (#24656225)
    The reason that steam power (various anonymous mine engineers), gas engines, oil engines, balloons, electric motors, gliders, early airplanes and even gas plants and thermal nuclear reactors could be pioneered by amateurs is that they all work at small scales. Every one of these technologies can be made to work at a size that will fit on a kitchen table. (even, with the right isotopes, a thermal nuclear reactor)

    Now look at a float glass plant, a steel continuous casting and rolling mill, or any likely practical fusion design. They simply do not work at small scales, therefore they cannot be developed by cottage industry.

  • Eureka! (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Ora*DBA ( 101576 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @07:49AM (#24656751)

    Another product overengineered by General Dynamics...

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:03AM (#24656817) Homepage Journal

    Well, orders of magnitude have this way of piling up, and when they do so, it matters.

    So, you need offsetting orders of magnitude: money, brains, luck, or some combination thereof.

    I've worked with fusion researchers; some of them were jerks, but all of them were pretty damned smart. They didn't have much money relative to what they wanted to do, but they were spending lots more than any hobbyists are.

    That leaves luck. Somebody might just happen on something that others could have thought of, but didn't. The right piece of information at the right time sort of thing.

    You can't dismiss luck. But you can quantify it. Personally I wouldn't bet on the entire community of fusion hobbyists to produce a practical power reactor, or even something that will make such a thing possible.

    But I'm glad they're doing it.

  • by 192939495969798999 ( 58312 ) <info&devinmoore,com> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:33AM (#24657017) Homepage Journal

    Sure, it seems incredibly hard, but that's only because we don't know what the solution is yet that will go from where we are to the final version, just like airplanes pre-Wright Brothers. Any hobbyist building a reactor knows that all these posts about how impossible it is for a hobbyist to build one of these that produces useful power are going to seem really stupid once someone can build one that does produce useful power.

  • Insightful huh? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Technopaladin ( 858154 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @08:47AM (#24657119)

    Most of what you say rings true, Pity it isnt.

    1. Lives of leisure are certainly NOT more unacceptable today. See: Hollywood, Children of the VERY wealthy, Politicians(remember the President is over 500 DAYS of vacation in 7 years). If we valued hard work or lives of deeper meaning and value I am sure I wouldnt have too see all that garbage in the news.

    2. More personal fortunes then? Not hardly. We have more Billionaires today then they had Millionaires. Even accounting for inflation and cost of living we have FAR more wealth today.

    3. Lastly the point of the article above is we have hobbists working on Fusion. That said the last part of your post is wholely inaccurate.
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_science [wikipedia.org]
    and thats not counting the billions donated by the wealthy to support research in a HOST of fields.

  • Re:Good grief... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @09:02AM (#24657255)
    Gee Whiz.

    I wonder why the environment movement has been losing its credibility - or, since I suppose you were around in the 60's-70's, call it a "credibility gap" http://www.wellesley.edu/Writing/Nixon/Slideshow/nixon_sign.jpg [wellesley.edu]

    You can't make the excuse "kids today..."

    Maybe the movement has been "infiltrated"?

    http://www.ncforestry.org/docs/Latest%20News/articles/Archives/environmental_movement_is_rapidl.htm [ncforestry.org]

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/12/opinion/12kristof.html [nytimes.com]

    http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint/ [grist.org]

  • by Teancum ( 67324 ) <[ten.orezten] [ta] [gninroh_trebor]> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:17AM (#24658137) Homepage Journal

    I would agree that the tokamak reactor is something that simply won't work on a small scale... and seems to be the current darling technology for mainstream physicists who are working on fusion technologies.

    With the billions of dollars spend in that direction, it should speak volumes that this is a dead-end technology.

    As far as a practical fusion device that can generate more energy than it takes to get the fusion process started.... that is indeed a tough challenge. The IEC hints that it may not have to be as complicated as the tokamak reactor design, and the IEC at least allows an amateur scientist to study this concept where actual real fusion is taking place... admittedly on a small scale.

    As far as steel fabrication and manufacturing, I happen to know a few amateur blacksmiths that get pretty good at what they are doing, and can make some rather incredible things. It isn't quite on the scale of a major steel fab plant, but there is room for amateur metallurgy and glass fabrication that can work on the scale of an individual or small-team level. That economies of scale are there, no doubt, but it can be done on a much smaller scale than you are implying here. The rest is how you scale that production up to larger quantities and ensuring more consistency in terms of the end product.

  • by Teancum ( 67324 ) <[ten.orezten] [ta] [gninroh_trebor]> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @10:47AM (#24658593) Homepage Journal

    It really isn't the containment field that is causing the problem, but rather that the particles (including atomic fuel source nuclei) keep bumping into the physical structure of the apparatus, sucking energy out of the process before it can initiate a fusion reaction. If you could build the containment field without the need to put in the physical elements, it may just be enough to get past that energy break-even point. But how do you accomplish such a task?

    There are a few interesting ideas on how to accomplish something similar to that, but it does take some imagination. The Polywell concept is at least one that uses a similar approach but avoids the physical metal grid in the center that causes so much grief to the IEC researchers.

  • by VAXcat ( 674775 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @11:05AM (#24658879)
    Well, X-rays aren't good for you, true...but nothing is worse than neutrons. It's like the old physics test question - if you have an alpha source, a beta source, a gamma (similar to X-rays) source, and a neutron source, all of similar "intensities", and you can eat one, put one in your pocket, hold one at arm's length, and throw one away...what do you do? You put the alpha source in your pocket, since the cloth in your pants will stop alphas. You hold the beta source at arm's length, since a foot or so of air will stop betas. That leaves the neutron and the gamma...well, you throw away the neutron source, since neutrons will activate and make radioactive any material it is close to, this making more radiation over time. You swallow the gamma, since its range make that just about as bad as the other two alternatives.
  • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @11:18AM (#24659053)

    Right! Which is pre-cise-ly why mere hobbyists were totally unimportant when steam engines were superseded by explosion/electric engines, when electricity superseded town gas, or when heavier-than-air craft superseded dirigibles, or when modern biochemicals/genetics/pharmaceutics took off after the '70s. And to the whole transistor -> chip -> microcompting discontinuity thing.

    This is a bit more like the amateur's role in the development of jet engine or fission reactor technology. That is to say, negligible or less.

    Some technologies are out of the reach of the hobbyist - especially with regard to genuine innovation (as opposed to copying or simply using commercially available technologies on a small scale).

    Note that even with the dominant role of hobbyists in the rise of the microcomputer they didn't develop the LSIC technology, nor make the chips they built their home brew computers from.

  • by rogerz ( 78608 ) <roger@[ ]aymedia.com ['3pl' in gap]> on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @03:33PM (#24663173)

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

    ... of which ~1kW/m**2 arrives at the equator on a perfectly cloudless day. So, to produce as much power as a typical commercial fission reactor would require 1M m**2 array of photo-voltaic cells operating at that location at 100% efficiency, without any reasonable access to repair failed components (i.e. no spacing).

    Removing some of the unrealistic assumptions from that previous paragraph results in the need for at least 10M m**2 of equipment at a typical populated location on earth. That's a square 3 km on a side - for the same power we can get from a nuke plant requiring about 100 m on a side (counting only power-generating components).

    Conclusion: Even with perfect efficiency, nuclear power generation is roughly 100 times more land-efficient than solar could ever be on earth. At realistic levels of efficiency, with realistic commercial configurations, the ratio is well over 1000.

  • by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2008 @03:50PM (#24663481) Homepage
    Note: "Wikipedia expects" is not the most compelling technical analysis I've ever read.

"To take a significant step forward, you must make a series of finite improvements." -- Donald J. Atwood, General Motors