Homemade ‘Fusors’ Glow,
But Don’t Produce Power;
Joining the ‘Neutron Club’
By SAM SCHECHNER
August 18, 2008; Page A1
PITTSBURGH — In the garage of his house, Frank Sanns spends nights tinkering with one of his prized possessions: a working nuclear-fusion reactor.
Mr. Sanns, 51 years old, is part of a small subculture of gearheads, amateur physicists and science-fiction fans who are trying to build fusion reactors in their basements, backyards and home laboratories. Mr. Sanns, who owns a banquet hall here, believes he’s on track to make fusion a viable power source.
“I’m a dreamer,” he says.
In Richmond, Va., Richard and Kit Hull share a house with three cats, eight cars and a lab featuring a working nuclear fusion reactor. WSJ’s Sam Schechner reports.
Many of these hobbyists call themselves “fusioneers,” and have formed a loosely knit community that numbers more than 100 world-wide. Getting into their elite “Neutron Club” requires building a tabletop reactor that successfully fuses hydrogen isotopes and glows like a miniature star. Only 42 have qualified; some have T-shirts that read “Fusion — been there…done that.”
Called fusors and based on a 1960s design first developed by Philo T. Farnsworth, an inventor of television, the reactors are typically small steel spheres with wires and tubes sticking out and a glass window for looking inside. But they won’t be powering homes anytime soon — for now, fusors use far more energy than they produce.
Fusion, which releases energy by forcing two atoms close enough together that they join to become a heavier atom, is the process that powers the sun and stars. Replicating that on Earth requires enormous amounts of energy. For decades, scientists have been experimenting with various methods to fuse atoms, including using magnetic fields and lasers. Even a nearly $15 billion multinational project to build a fusion reactor in southern France is only intended to show that fusion power is technically feasible, not to actually tap it.
But the allure is strong. A fusion power plant would likely be fueled by deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen that are in plentiful supply. Fusion advocates say reactors would be relatively clean, generating virtually no air pollution and little long-lived radioactive waste. Today’s nuclear power plants, in contrast, are fission-based, meaning they split atoms and create a highly radioactive waste that can take millennia to decompose.
While some amateurs, like Mr. Sanns, think fusion power holds promise, others are less hopeful. “Basically, it’s almost like, over the gates of hell, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter,'” says Richard Hull, who built his first working fusor nearly a decade ago.
Mr. Hull, a 62-year-old electronics engineer in Richmond, Va., where he lives with his wife, Kit, and three cats, has been obsessed with radioactivity since he was a boy. He has collected more than a dozen Geiger counters, built his own gamma-ray spectrometer, and accumulated hundreds of books, including many from the dawn of the Nuclear Age and mid-20th century, when he remembers ordering radioactive isotopes by mail.
He has uranium rods, old clocks with radium faces and samples of rock from the test site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. His bathroom is stocked with back issues of the hobbyist periodical Nuts and Volts. Every year, he hosts an amateur-science gathering that attracts dozens of hobbyists from across the country. “Most of these people like things that go bang, pop, sput, fizz,” says Mr. Hull.
Mr. Hull started on his fusion path in late 1997, when science-fiction author and electrical-engineering technologist Tom Ligon visited Mr. Hull’s home for the amateur-science event. Mr. Ligon brought with him a model of a fusor that he called “Dog and Pony Show I.” Only a demo, the device didn’t actually fuse atoms, but it did light up like a neon light in a plastic chamber — and Mr. Hull was hooked. He built his own fusor in “literally 31 days,” he says, and is now preparing to build his fifth.
Mr. Hull began posting about his reactor on a Web site dedicated to Mr. Farnsworth. Others joined him, asking questions, trading ideas, and eventually uploading photographs of their own reactors.
On the group’s site, now at www.fusor.net, Mr. Hull maintains a list of fusioneers, including Jon Rosenstiel, a 65-year-old retired mechanical engineer for motocross-racing teams, and Carl Willis, a 27-year-old doctoral student at Ohio State University, who keeps his fusor just a few feet from his bed.
Though fusors don’t produce any significant amount of radioactive waste, fusioneers say there is a danger of electrocution. The reactors use extremely high voltage — often more than 10,000 volts of electricity running through a hollow wire sphere — to pull ions of deuterium toward the center of the device, where some of them collide and fuse into new atoms. They require special equipment to deliver that voltage, but because fusors run at a very low amperage, amateur devices can draw less power from the wall than a big plasma TV. The process does produce x-rays and, when fusion actually occurs, neutrons — both of which are dangerous at sufficient dosages.
“People have to be very careful,” says Gerald L. Kulcinski, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and director of the Fusion Technology Institute there. “I think it’s great that we’ve got the enthusiasm of a lot of people. It’s impressive. But I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
There’s another downside to building fusors, says Mr. Hull: “Many people have a knee-jerk reaction that if you’ve got anything nuclear, you’re a possible terrorist.”
A couple of years ago, when a Detroit-area high-school student named Thiago Olson built a fusor, the Michigan Department of Community Health contacted him to examine it. “I was a little worried,” says Mr. Olson, now 19. The department determined that Mr. Olson’s fusor wasn’t a “registerable radiation machine” and posed no hazard, according to a spokeswoman.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates commercial x-ray emitters, says it doesn’t regulate hobbyists, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it doesn’t regulate domestic uses of deuterium. State rules vary.
In his home lab, Richard Hull sits in front of his current fusor, the fourth he’s built since 1997. He’s already gathering parts for his fifth.
In Virginia, for example, the state Department of Health registers radiation-emitting imaging devices for commercial use, but a spokeswoman says it doesn’t require registration of equipment for personal use. In Pennsylvania, any device that could potentially emit x-rays or other radiation must be registered, according to a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Mr. Sanns says his fusor isn’t registered, but he studiously monitors radiation emissions and doesn’t run it at high enough levels to generate x-rays that can penetrate its steel shell. “I take x-rays very, very seriously,” he says. “I’m not going to die because of stupid judgment.”
Sparks of Innovation
On Mr. Hull’s block, his next-door neighbor Robert Bauer is one of the few people who know the extent of what Mr. Hull does in his lab. In the early 1990s, Mr. Bauer and his wife noticed bright sparks coming off the Hulls’ house and warned them — only to learn the sparks were a side-effect of Mr. Hull’s experimentation with Tesla coils, high-voltage devices developed by the inventor Nikola Tesla.
“I’m expecting there’ll be a great big smoldering hole there one day,” jokes Mr. Bauer, an electrician and motorcycle enthusiast with a thick beard, gesturing at the Hull’s home with a laugh. Mrs. Hull, who ventures into her husband’s lab from time to time, but prefers to spend her free time solving puzzle books, is similarly sanguine. “As long as he doesn’t blow the place up, I’m OK,” she says.
Robert L. Hirsch, 73, who helped develop the fusor’s basic design with Mr. Farnsworth in the 1960s, before directing fusion research at what was then called the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1970s, says he’s surprised and delighted that amateurs have picked up his old device.
“You can never tell where the sparks of innovation are going to come,” says Mr. Hirsch.
Write to Sam Schechner at firstname.lastname@example.org