Most of that Saturday, we enjoyed the company of Washington Post correspondent Cathy Alter and photographer Andre Chung. I forget now how Cathy had gotten wind of the fusor crew, but she was intrigued enough to get some background on the subject and came prepared for an event that was – to put it mildly – somewhat foreign to her experience.
The result is this story that appears in the Sunday, May 29 Washington Post Magazine section:
…which offers an interesting perspective on how a lay-person responds when confronted with the fact of “amateur” scientists fooling around with nuclear reactors in their basements and garages.
Starting with a look at Richard Hull’s Fusor IV, Cathy writes:
I’m nervously checking out the 69-year-old Hull’s fusor, rubbernecking with 43 others, including a handful of high school students accompanied by game-but-baffled parents. We are gathered for the annual meeting of HEAS, which stands for the High Energy Amateur Science group and meets in this shed every year on the first Saturday of October for a day of, in Hull’s words, “anything that has to do with bangs, pops and sizzles.”
… I was captivated, bewildered and, frankly, a little afraid. As we filed out of Hull’s door at day’s end, a man in front of me turned around and said: “Just a tip. Be sure to wash your hands before you eat.”
And so it goes.
What follows are short profiles of Richard and eight of the other attendees at the HEAS gathering (pictured, above, clockwise from the top left: Richard Hull, Tim Raney, Kevin Dunn, Scott Moroch & Jack Rosky, Larry Adams, Connor Givans, Paul Schatzkin, Frank Sanns).
What is perhaps more interesting to read are the comments that follow the online version of the article, which offers a pretty good indication of what is the public’s perception of nuclear energy, fusion, and the fusor in particular.
It seems that as difficult as it may be to achieve net-power from fusion, it may be even harder to persuade a doubting populace that we really need it.
I dunno, maybe because most of the money seems to get siphoned off for the biggest, most cumbersome, complex, and costly (the 3-Cs of most fusion research) schemes and machines money can buy (and the bloated scientific staffs that build them) to solve what is essentially a simple challenge?
Fusion, at its core, is a simple concept. Take two hydrogen isotopes and smash them together with overwhelming force. The two atoms overcome their natural repulsion and fuse, yielding a reaction that produces an enormous amount of energy.
But a big payoff requires an equally large investment, and for decades we have wrestled with the problem of energizing and holding on to the hydrogen fuel as it reaches temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Fahrenheit. To date, the most successful fusion experiments have succeeded in heating plasma to over 900 million degrees Fahrenheit, and held onto a plasma for three and a half minutes, although not at the same time, and with different reactors.
The most recent advancements have come from Germany, where the Wendelstein 7-X reactor recently came online with a successful test run reaching almost 180 million degrees, and China, where the EAST reactor sustained a fusion plasma for 102 seconds, although at lower temperatures.
Still, even with these steps forward, researchers have said for decades that we’re still 30 years away from a working fusion reactor. Even as scientists take steps toward their holy grail, it becomes ever more clear that we don’t even yet know what we don’t know.
The multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project will take another 6 years to build beyond the—now widely discredited—official schedule, a meeting of the governing council was told this week. ITER management has also asked the seven international partners backing the project for additional funding to finish the job.
Last week I drove back up to Virginia (I was in Richmond for HEAS earlier in the month) to spend a day with Doug Coulter.
I’ve known of Doug for several years, and have occasionally looked in on his website, where he has made a concerted effort to focus and elevate the “open source” discussion of fusion above the noise that has become an issue for the Fusor.net fora of late.
Doug showed up on my radar again just before HEAS, after I posted this appeal to the Fusor community to, well, get serious about this line of inquiry. Shortly after that post, I got a message from one of the regular visitors to the site to “have a talk with Bill Fain (another Fusor/HEAS regular) when you get there about Doug…”
At HEAS, I did talk to Bill, who, it turns out, has been working closely with Doug for quite some time on his fusor project, which Doug has been building for several years on his solar-powered, off-the-grid “homestead in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Floyd, Virginia. And what Bill told me got me as fired up about this topic as anything I’ve heard since it first got my attention more than forty years ago.
After talking to Bill I visited Doug’s website, where he has been entirely forthcoming about some recent experiments (if somewhat and understandably circumspect about the techniques involved):
….we made a ginormous breakthrough, actually. We are at approximately 100 billion neutrons/second with under 100w input.
100 billion neutrons/second?? Whoa! Jump back (literally and figuratively)!
This is pretty much old news, finally being reported in the nation’s “paper of record,” so I guess that makes it official:
“The fusion era is here and coming,” said William D. Lese, a managing partner at Braemar Energy Ventures, a venture capital firm with a stake in General Fusion, one of the leading start-ups in the field. “The increase in activity in this space is perhaps a sign of that.”
The statement that I find most intriguing is:
“They just keep pounding on the same dead horse,” said Edward C. Morse, a nuclear physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. “What happens in fusion is that the same ideas pop up every two decades. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.”
It’s interesting because, while the tokamaks and stellarators and polywells keep popping up… the fusor that we’re experimenting with here just stays in its hole.
I discovered last night that the cover story of this coming week’s edition of TIME Magazine (dated Nov 2, 2015) is all about the quest for fusion – which is suddenly a hot topic now that it’s starting to attract all kinds of Silicon Valley, tech-titan, and VC money.
Unfortunately, the online version of the story is behind TIME.com’s paywall. They don’t even let you view a limited number of articles per month, like most digital versions of legacy print media (like the New York Times) do. They want you to subscribe for $3/mo to read the one article.
Well, pardon me but… fuck that. Here’s a PDF of the story you can download and read at your leisure: Time_Fusion.pdf. I suggest you save the article to your own hard drive lest some lawyer for TIME insist we take the link down.
There is some deliberate, conscientious rebelliousness to this act of digital defiance.
Those of us in the “Open Source” fusion community – on this and other sites – adhere to the conviction that, once achieved, the knowledge that makes fusion possible needs to be freely circulated. It cannot be become the property of any single capitalist enterprise or consortium. It cannot be monopolized like fossil fuel production and distribution. It should not be any more “proprietary” than that other form of combustion – you know, fire.
So, at the risk of defying the gods of digital commerce, this story is being made available to the “open source” fusion community here.
There’s been a lot in the cultural firmament this month about the second “Back To The Future” movie – the one where Marty and Doc Brown fly in the DeLorean time machine – now powered by a “Mr. Fusion” reactor – to the date of October, 21, 2015. They arrive at a time where not only fusion power is a reality, but the Chicago Cubs have finally won a World Series.
So much for the predictive power of 1980s cinema.
So that was on my mind when my daily, multi-source info-feed delivered this article from LinkedIn:
And what immediately struck me about the article (before I read it, of course) was this illustration that accompanies it:
I’ve been critical of the whole tokamak approach to fusion on the grounds that the approach produces massive, incredibly complex machines could fill a gymnasium. I only arrive at this obviously negative (and perhaps ill-informed, since I’m hardly anybody’s idea of an expert) bias because my introduction to the subject comes by way of the Farnsworth Fusor, a device that sits on a table top.
Now comes the world’s joint effort to demonstrate magnetic containment – yes, another ginormous tokamak, only this time the largest one ever built, on a scale several orders of magnitude beyond anything that preceded it.
And just look at this photo of the campus that will house this behemoth. My god, it’s not a gymnasium, it’s a whole fucking city!! For one experimental reactor!!!
The article makes a pretty solid case for why this project is little more than a monumental money pit.
Clearly ITER itself will never be commercial. Supporters will argue: So what? ITER is a government experiment – not a commercial product – the next machine will work.” There are several evils in this logic. First, if you admit that ITER is not on the commercial path thenstop treating it like it is. Fund this experiment appropriately along with other experimental options; but do not risk everything on ITER. That is a bet we already know will fail. Secondly, delaying the change pushes the world into more dangerous climate realities, with a fusion option further and further away. This is a dangerous path and it must change for humanity’s sake.
So, yeah, it’s frustrating to see countless billions being poured down a rat hole when smaller scale projects don’t get serious consideration. There is a mentality around this research that says “it has to be big.”
No, it doesn’t.
But that’s the mentality that governs the whole field.
I have been taking exception lately to the notion that “Fusion is the energy of the future and always will be.”
For starters, while the line is clever verbiation (don’t bother looking it up, I just made that one up), it is also something of a self-defeating prophesy.
As the protagonist (who just happens to be a dog named “Enzo”) in the novel “The Art of Racing In The Rain” is fond of saying, “that which we manifest is before us.” In other words, if that’s what you think is true, then, well, by golly… it probably is. For you.
But I get where such skepticism comes from when I read an article like this one that showed up in my Google Alerts (“nuclear fusion”) this morning:
The magnetic fusion device, tokamak, has been a focus for extensive research the world over, and will emerge as the energy option of the future by 2050. Tokamak aims to determine the economic and technological viability of using fusion energy to greater effect to produce electricity.
Did I read that right? “…will emerge as the energy option of the future by 2050…”? Well there ya go, it’ll be in the future… in the future.
Since so much of the research in fusion is devoted to tokamaks, I begin to understand where the attitude comes from. Whatever their “potential,” tokamaks are so complex that it seems doubtful to me (admittedly a marginally knowledgeable observer) that they will ever achieve “economic and technological viability.” So yeah, sure, maybe the Tokamak will prove viable in another 35 years. Never mind that we’ve already been working with that approach for 50…
Perhaps more revealing is the statement that opens the article:
The Department of Atomic Energy has handpicked a Thapar University scientist to work on a prestigious nuclear fusion program…
I think that tells you all you need to know about institutional magnetic fusion projects. They’re not about energy. They’re about prestige.
Imagine being dropped into the middle of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” Then imagine taking LSD. Then imagine that the episode runs for like 12 or 14 hours…
Now you’ve got some idea what this past Saturday was like for me…
The occasion was the 26th annual gathering of HEAS – The High Energy Amateur Science group – a loose-nit gang of high voltage, radiation, and fringe science enthusiasts from all over the country who gather at the home and lab of Richard Hull in Richmond Virginia to talk gizmos.
This was my fourth or fifth time attending this event, but even so I felt woefully “out of my league.” I attended because this is the best chance I have every year to visit with the people who inhabit Fusor.net – the site I started back in 1998 to foster discussion among people who are interested in Philo T. Farnsworth’s approach to nuclear fusion.
I felt out of place, but there I was…
I think the tone of the weekend was set early on, when I was chatting with an 18 year old from Seattle named Noah Hoppis, who pulled a small – wait for it – geiger counter! out of his pocket. He proceeded to explain how it works, how he got it, what he does with it, etc.
Noah was there with an older friend of his family, a woman named Linda who lives in the area and was providing transportation for the weekend. I watched as Linda’s eyes glazed over, and at one point she said, “I understand all the individual words, but once he starts stringing them together…. he loses me.”
Which is pretty much how I felt the entire day.
I am at best marginally conversant in these questions of advanced science and physics. Remember, I’m the guy who basically got flunked out of physics in high-school because I was a pain in the ass for the teacher. That was in the 11th grade, and I spent the semester in the principals office pulling wires out of an early kind of computer circuit board. The symbolism is pretty rich…
Despite my failure in any kind of academic scientific pursuit, I have some capacity for staying tuned in long enough to get a sense of the big picture, and maybe even some talent for distilliing the Broad Concepts into language that the average reader can comprehend. I’ve done it in two books, and occasionally somebody will tell me “you said that pretty clearly” or words to that effect. I smile and think to myself, “fooled ‘em again…”
So I spent the first two hours being a million miles – light years? – out of my comfort zone… thinking, “I have no business being here.”
After a few hours of that, I finally settled down and got my camera out and started taking some pictures.
First, here is Richard Hull himself, as his fusor runs on the apparatus around him. Just over his left shoulder is the fusion chamber itself, and over his right shoulder is the video image of the actual “star in a a jar” reaction inside that chamber:
Now, of course, the reaction that Richard has created is pretty “low yield.” 1-2 million neutrons emitted per second may sound like a lot, but that level is safe to be in the same room with. Exponentially, that yield is expressed as 1x10E6 (1 times ten-to-the-sixth) “Breakeven” for a system like this is predicted to occur somewhere between 10E12 and 10E14. Let me do the math for you: that would be somewhere between 10 and 100 TRILLION neutrons per second. We ain’t there yet.
But fear not. Here’s my favorite single photo of the weekend:
This is Scott Moroch and Jack Rosky, two students at a high school in Wayne New Jersey who are building – yes – their ow nuclear fusion reactor. What Scott is holding in his hand is a model of the fusion chamber they plan to build that they rendered in a 3D printer. The model is plastic, the real thing will be stainless steel (and considerably larger). Now THAT’s using new technology to create new technology…
Finally, my favorite demonstration of the weekend:
….where in Robert Tubbs looks on and assists as Dr. Kevin Dunn from the Hampton-Sidney College in Virginia demonstrates a form of “Caveman Chemistry” – namely a prehistoric chemical process called “fire.”
Conducted in the presence of the Fusor, it’s an intriguing juxtaposition of “Fire Version One” with “Fire Version 2.” Kevin made the point that “civilization” essentially begins with the discovery and control of “Fire v1.0” What becomes of “civilization” if/when we finally control “Fire v2.0”?
And, not surprisingly, it is no easy feat to make fire from two pieces of wood. It takes some coordination to rapidly and repeatedly pull the bow back and forth to spin the spindle while pressing the spindle down against the second piece of wood. It takes a bit of practice and perseverance to get the hang of it.
And I’m sure that, back at the beginning of time, there was one caveman telling the other caveman, “fire from two pieces of wood?!? That’s NEVER gonna work!”
Watching these young guys try their hand at making fire – and knowing that they would go home to resume their efforts to build and operate a fusion reactor, I came up with this new rule: You’re not aloud to make “nuclear fire” until you have demonstrated that you are capable of making “carbon fire.”
Tomorrow (Friday, October 2) I will be driving from Nashville up to Richmond, Virginia for the annual gathering of the HEAS – the High Energy Amateur Science club. This loosely-configured assembly of dedicated science nerds has gathered on the first Saturday of every October for 25 years now – this year will be the 26th. The event attracts people from all over the country who come to demonstrate and talk about the amazing things they are building in their basements and garages, many of them exploring the most esoteric areas of high voltage phenomena worthy of the likes of Nikola Tesla.
This will be my fourth or fifth excursion to meet up with this unique tribe of real-life characters from The Big Bang Theory. It is held each year at the home and laboratory of Richard Hull, who also happens to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on Tesla, the amazing Tesla Coil, and what Tesla did or did not actually doin his lifetime (apart from the vast mythology that has formed around the cult of his personality in the past decade or so).
I first met Richard back in 2000, after I tacked some information about the Farnsworth Fusor to the end of The Farnsworth Chronicles, which I had posted as as sidebar to “songs.com” – the Internet music site I started in 1995. Once I’d discovered I had the ability to “self publish” whatever I wanted to the web, I scanned and uploaded the Farnsworth biography I’d had lying fallow since the 1970s. At the end I wondered if there was anybody out in the worldie-wide-web who might be interested in the work that Philo Farnsworth – you know, the guy who invented television (I know, you probably didn’t know…) – did in the last two decades of his life. In the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth invented a novel approach to nuclear fusion – the same process that drives the sun and stars.
Fusion was then and is now still the holy grail of modern science. Given its history, it’s no surprise that a vast array of skeptics insist that the promise of fusion as the solution to our energy needs (and now pollution-generated climate change) is something that is “twenty years in the future and always will be…”
Now the question – and the discussion I want to have – is: did Philo Farnsworth find a viable approach to energy generation through nuclear fusion some fifty years ago? And if so, why aren’t we living in the fusion-powered future NOW?
When Richard Hull and I first started to confer with each other, he was just beginning to build his first fusor, spurred on by a fellow named Tom Ligon who was a disciple of another fusion researcher, the late Robert Bussard, who had was developed his own version of the Farnsworth process called the Polywell. Richard has since been the de-facto leader of the tribe, the most active and consistent participant in the growing, global community that is Fusor.net.
Over the course of the ensuing decade and half, what started out as a simple forum in one of the earliest online bulletin board formats has grown through several iterations into fusor.net – behind which lies a vast database of knowledge compiled by hundreds of people around the world who are experimenting with their own variations of Farnsworth’s invention. Between them, these (mostly) “amateur” (in the best possible meaning of the word) scientists produce on a daily basis more actual nuclear fusion than all of the expensively funded experiments being conducted at the behest of governments, corporations and institutions around the world combined.
But here’s the thing: this cadre of “fusioneers” – uniquely accomplished as they are, and in spite of the vast trove of knowledge they have helped assemble over the years – are not really experimenting with the Farnsworth Fusor. They’re experimenting with what I call the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth Fusor. This simplified version of the Fusor was first built by colleagues of Farnsworth’s in the mid 1960s. Robert Hirsch and Gene Meeks built their version of the fusor on a dessert cart – so that it could be wheeled in to a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to demonstrate Inertial Electrostatic Confinement. These events are well documented in the latter chapters of my book, “The Boy Who Invented Television.”
It is this “dessert cart” fusor that the Legion of Fusioneers are building in their basements and garages.
The simple fact of the matter is that nobody has built or tested an actual “Farnsworth Fusor” in more than 50 years. Think of how far technology has come in those five decades. Imagine a Fusor with computerized controls…
And now we read that the Titans of Tech – innovators and digital industrialists who have amassed unimaginable fortunes over the past three decades – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a whole new array of fusion concepts:
America has six private-sector fusion projects underway, according to a new report by the research firm Third Way. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel has backed Helion Energy of Redmond, Wash. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has put money behind Tri Alpha Energy in Irvine, Calif., which has reportedly raised $140 million. And Bezos Expeditions, the investment fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is backing a Vancouver company called General Fusion, which so far has raised $94 million.
But the undeniable fact is: none of the approaches to fusion that any of these Tech Titans are funding is anywhere near as simple or elegant as the device that Philo Farnsworth first created in the late 1950s.
In 2001, I got to spend some time with Gene Meeks, the co-creator of the Hirsch Meeks Variation. Gene was as close to the critical work in the Farnsworth laboratory as anybody, and spoke in guarded terms about his experience. But when pressed on the subject, Gene finally spoke wistfully of a fusor iteration called “Prime II” and its prospects for achieving “breakeven” – that elusive goal of all fusion research, where the energy coming out of the reaction is greater than the energy it takes to make the atoms fuse.
“We were close,” Gene Meeks said of the Prime II. “Very close….”
If that was the case, then what I want to know – the discussion I want to have – is: why isn’t any money being invested to revisit the Farnsworth Fusor?
Now, I could be completely off base here. Despite having founded this site almost two decades ago, I am arguably speaking from a vantage point of somebody who is only minimally knowledgeable in the field. Unlike the countless contributors who have combined their efforts over a decade-and-a-half to form the vast database that is Fusor.net, I have never built anything more complicated than a slot-car – and that was also 50 years ago.
So maybe they all know something I don’t know. Maybe the discussion is moot. Maybe it has been proven somewhere that by the mid 1960s, Farnsworth was operating with faculties greatly diminished by decades of substance abuse. Maybe, as some have contended, the Fusor is a dead end, but fun to experiment with.
Or maybe the the truth is closer to the story I first heard about Farnsworth and fusion, on a hillside in Santa Cruz California in the summer of 1973.
I had first heard of Philo T. Farnsworth in the “Videocity” edition of a publication called Radical Software – this edition named for San Francisco – the city where Farnsworth first demonstrated electronic video in 1927. Later that summer I went out to the west coast to seek my fortune in the television business. That September I went up the coast to Santa Cruz, and met a friend of the Farnsworth family. He told me an the apocryphal story he had heard from Farnsworth’s eldest son, Philo T. Farnsworth III about the day his father put aside his fusion work. The story goes something like this:
Imagine a young boy watching from the doorway of his father’s laboratory while the father operates an amazing machine – a ‘star in a jar.’ The young boy watches as his father puts the machine through its paces, spinning off an eery, other-worldly light as the small synthetic star burns brightly. And then he watches as his father – satisfied that the device worked as intended – dismantled it in such a way that it would never work again, and placed the piece that made it work on a high shelf where nobody would ever find it.
That is, essentially, the story I first heard in the summer of 1973.
Two years later, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Philo T. Farnsworth III. Over the course of the following decade we became good and trusting friends and shared many amazing moments together. After I’d know him a while, I finally told him about that story, and asked him if there was any truth to it.
“That’s a pretty good story,” Philo said, “if a bit fantastic. But I’ll tell you this much: the patents that my father filed… are incomplete.”
In other words, something was removed from the public disclosures – the patents – that make all the difference in how the device that Farnsworth built works or doesn’t work.
Maybe the time has come to invest some small portion of the tech millions that are being poured into these new experiments to find out once and for all if the answer has been with us all along.