Amateur 'fusioneers' work to sustain energy-creating process
In the ordinary-looking garage of a home outside Pittsburgh, Frank Sanns is creating the power of the sun, with his "Pillar of Fire."
Moving between pieces equipment on a work bench and the floor, Sanns adjusts knobs and turns valves, while a vacuum pump hums and sucks air out of his creation: a tabletop nuclear fusion reactor.
"I need to get the air inside the chamber down to outer space conditions," Sanns said. The chemist-turned-banquet hall proprietor always wears a dosimeter, which measures radiation — just in case — he said.
Sanns is among about 100 amateur physicists, inquisitive types and out-of-the-box thinkers, many of which call themselves "fusioneers," who swap stories of where to buy power sources, vacuum chambers and deuterium gas.
They also pass along the results of their experiments in fusing hydrogen atoms. The process, if sustained, generates tremendous energy.
Scientists have chased fusion for about 50 years. The problem is not with creating fusion, the fusing of particles smaller than an atom. The problem is maintaining the process in a controlled way.
"We never have been able to sustain fusion for longer than a fraction of a section," said Andy Gellman, head of Carnegie Mellon University's Chemical Engineering Department. "There's been progress, but it's been slow progress."
Once enough air is sucked from Sanns' stainless steel chamber, a device that looks like the helmet worn by salvage divers, Sanns peers into the glass side of the instrument, looking for a red glow.
"Look in there now, we're getting some neutrons," Sanns said. Neutrons are electrically neutral, smaller-than-an-atom particles found in the nucleus of an atom. But during fusion, neutrons are forced from the nucleus, visible in Sanns' machine by the white "tails" they leave, he said.
Fusion is unlike its sister reaction, fission, which splits atoms to create massive amounts of energy and is used in electricity-producing power plants and atomic bombs. Instead, fusion slams together nuclear particles, which results in even more energy being released. Fusion is the process that powers the sun and stars.
A fusion reactor, likely fueled using variants of the element hydrogen — isotopes known as deuterium and tritium — would emit virtually no pollution and little long-lived radioactivity, according to its proponents.
The problem with moving fusion from experiments into real life is the tremendous amount of energy needed to get atoms past their normal state of repelling each other. Scientists and fusion proponents like Sanns also must ensure that once fusion begins, the process will continue.
The goal is to make the reaction self-sustaining, to make it continue feeding itself so it produces energy beyond the initial charge used to get it started, which experts call break-even.
Fusion typically is performed in a vacuum, with pressures of about one-millionth of normal atmospheric pressure. Under such conditions, temperatures literally go off the scale. Contained temperatures easily can top 10 million degrees. Voltages used to power up can reach 50,000 volts or more, even though the amount of electricity needed is that used to power a normal lightbulb, Sanns said.
Sanns and his fellow fusioneers are working with a method of producing fusion developed by one of television's pioneer developers, Philo T. Farnsworth. Called "inertial electrostatic confinement," it uses electrically-at rest force fields that speed up charged particles in a confined space.
Inertial electrostatic confinement hasn't gotten a lot of media play or federal research dollars, said Gerald L. Kulcinski, nuclear engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and director of its Fusion Technology Institute.
Kulcinsky has worked on fusion for 40 years, and believes that within a year, scientists at the government's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California will reach fusion break-even, using high-powered lasers to generate the nuclear reaction.
"After break-even, fusion goes from being a physics problem, to a materials problem," Kulcinsky said. "We must learn how to handle the extremely high temperatures and the radioactivity generated by a sustainable fusion reaction."
Even if break-even is achieved in 2010, Kulcinsky estimates it will be at least another 25 or 30 years before a commercial fusion reactor is viable.
Such talk doesn't stop men like Sanns from working to create a fusion reactor on a garage workbench. He admits he's not even trying to create a fusion reaction. He's interested in other things.
"I have a window into the quantum universe in my basement," Sanns said. "I want to understand gravitation, understand electromagnetism, and this equipment helps me to do that. I want to have a better understanding of the universe."
CMU's Gellman isn't enamored with seat-of-the-pants experimenters like Sanns.
"If someone makes fusion work, so it generates more power than it uses, that would be a wonderful thing," Gellman said. "But it's not going to happen in someone's backyard."
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