The Future’s So Bright…

… we really are going to need shades…

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 – 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!”

And yet…

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.”

You know, first things first…


Fusion Finally Tempts The Startup Crowd

And I dare say it’s been a long time coming…

The Helion fusion process will employ a hybrid of magnetic and inertial confinement models.
The Helion fusion process will employ a hybrid of magnetic and inertial confinement models.

News surfaced this past week that one of the world’s most prominent startup incubators, Y Combinator has taken a stake in a company called Helion, which insists that it will produce a break-even nuclear fusion process in three years:

So it came as a surprise to hear that Y Combinator and Mithril Capital Management are investing $1.5 million in Helion Energy, a Redmond, Washingon-based startup that says it has a plan to build a fusion reactor that breaks even on energy input and output, a challenge whose solution has been considered decades away for, well, decades. Helion CEO David Kirtley says that his company can do it in three years….

…When the team left to form their own company, they did so with the express intention of using electronics advancements from other fields to create a magnetic-inertial confinement fusion reactor.

I suppose it’s good news that this initiative will be using “electronics advancements” in the development of their fusion process.  Lord only knows that the advancements in electronic monitoring and computer control are light years ahead of what a fusion pioneer like Philo Farnsworth had at his disposal in the 1950s and 60s.

But as soon as I read that the process revolves around “magnetic” confinement (even if it is some kind of hybrid with inertial confinement) I become pretty skeptical.  I forget who it was but long ago somebody likened magnetic plasma confinement to trying to wrap jello in rubber bands.  That much has not changed, and billions – maybe hundreds of billions – have been spent over the past several decades on monolithic systems that pretty well prove the point.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the Silicon Valley tech/startup community is taking at least a marginal interest in the promise of fusion. And these guys do have the right idea to decentralized, distributed power network:

Instead of building at the scale of a gigawatt power station right out of the gate, the company is looking to compete with smaller, more distributed plants, like large diesel generators in regions where fuel has to be trucked in. It’s a market where the current “best” solution isn’t great and the barriers to entry are far easier to deal with than when competing with the big guys.

But they still have to find a fusion process that actually produces more power than it consumes.

Lord knows, if this server-farm reality we’ve created for ourselves is going to be sustainable, we’re going to have to find some source of electricity other than fossil fuels – and fusion, if it can ever be achieved, offers at least the siren song of temptation for the biggest bang for the buck.

So it’s good to see the Big Bucks that technology has generated finally taking a serious interest in the field.  It’s about time the prospect of fusion energy appealed to some deep pockets other than government funding.


Let The Kids Do It

Statesciencefair  Kudos to Dan Solomon at for getting to the real heart of the "amateur" fusion movement hosted here at In this piece published to the website yesterday, he focuses on modest high-schooler Chad Ramey, who at age 17 is building himself one of those fusion contraptions and showing it off at high-school science fairs:

When we read about Mark Suppes, the Brooklyn amateur physicist who built a nuclear reactor in a warehouse lab, we got curious: Is building a nuclear fusion device in your spare time a thing that people actually do?

It turns out that, not only is this a legitimate hobby, it's actually a thriving, supportive subculture. Asylum dove into the "Fusioneer" community to learn who its members are, how they practice their science and what they get out of it. 

At the risk of immodestly quoting myself (heh!), I think Dan gets to the very heart of the matter — why this site is here — with these paragraphs: 

No one who's built a Farnsworth reactor believes that it's going to become the "break-even" device that would allow it to generate at least as much energy as it requires to be active, which Schatzkin says has led some of the elder statesmen among the Fusioneers to become jaded. 

"That's what makes someone like Chad Ramey so important," he notes. "People in his generation don't know that it can't be done, so there's nothing to stop them from doing it."

Cliff1 Now, in all fairness, I think I need to give credit to where <I> got that line.  It was from Cliff Gardner – Philo Farnsworth's brother-in-law, who signed on early in the process of inventing television in the 1920s as the makeshift lab's "chief glass blower."  He knew nothing of the subject when he volunteered for the job, which was entirely appropriate since nobody in the world had done what they were about to do at 202 Green Street in San Francisco in the summer of 1926. 

Four years later, when Vladimir Zworykin showed up at Farnsworth's lab to see real television for the first time (since he'd been unable to produce it in his own well-funded labs at Westinghouse and RCA…), Cliff showed him an Image Dissector he'd built with a novel feature: instead of the sort of glass-dome end that was typical of vacuum tubes in those days, Cliff had devised a novel way of sealing flat, optical glass into the end of the tube.  

When Zworykin was shown this glass marvel, he said to Cliff in his fractured English, "my people told me this could not be done."  

To which Cliff replied, "well, I didn't know it couldn't be done, so I just went ahead and did it." 

And THAT is the spirit, so alive today in the younger members of, which will someday find the path that Philo Farnsworth was following in the 1950s and 60s, and turn a science-fair experiment into the gizmo that transforms the world.  

Or so I would like to believe, or its doubtful this site would be here at all.  And if I'm wrong, please, leave me to my delusions.  I've earned them. 

Tonight’s “Top Ten List” of Fusion Projects Around the World

Generalfusion-150x150  In case you're not keeping score, here's a round-up of the most visible fusion projects around the world. And while the article notes that "even amateurs have done it," there's no mention among this Top Ten list of the Fusor or any of the individuals who are experimenting with it. In other words, if you don't have a big institutional budget, you just don't register on the radar.

Interest in nuclear fusion, in which atoms are forced to join and thus release some of their energy, has been on the rise along with the development of solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies. Fusion is the holy grail of energy: completely clean, using only water and other commonly available elements as fuel, and cheap.

The problem isn’t that scientists can’t produce fusion reactions; even amateurs have done it. It’s that all discovered fusion processes consume more energy than they produce. (The similarity of the terms can be confusing, so it’s worth a reminder that nuclear fission, in which atoms split, is the well-known technology that already keeps lights on in some homes.)


Another “Student Fusor” Makes the News

Bilde  Every now and then, one of these basement fusor projects makes the local news. Here's an article from a recent edition of the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle about the fusor that Matthew Honickman built to start the New Year: 

"This is fun," he said. "For a lot of people, fusion seems kind of like something that's only done in really, really large, expensive government facilities."

Ted Kinsman, one of Honickman's science teachers at Brighton High School, said that he is aware of only a few high school students who have ever constructed fusors.

"It's quite an accomplishment," he said. "Basically, I applaud him. That's a lot of work."

The article says that Matthew hopes to be admited to either Cal-Tech or MIT next year. Either one of those institutions will do well to have a student like Matthew in their halls and classrooms — assuming those institutions can give him free reign, as opposed to grinding his brain into orthodox forms of thinking.