Fusion research is known for its huge projects — and its huge lack of tangible success. Big machines like the Princeton tokamak and the Livermore laser have indeed managed to fuse a few nuclei, but have required too much energy to get too little in return. A Brooklyn web developer named Mark Suppes recently created fusion in in his own home, using a much simpler device called a Farnsworth fusor. Accessing declassified experiments, and using open-source software, open-source hardware and crowdsourced funding, he has turned the traditional approach to scientific research on its head — and he makes it look easy.
In his early teenage years, Philo Farnsworth presented a concept for the all-electronic “image dissector,” and soon developed it into the first functioning television set. He successfully defended his rights to the design against larger corporations like RCA, which tried to claim it in a patent, and in the process became a legend and inspiration for private inventors and DIYers everywhere. Farnsworth’s skill at controlling electrons with electric fields later led him to develop a small nuclear fusion device. The device used inertial electrostatic confinement, as opposed to magnetic confinement which is used to fuse charged particles in the larger and more complex machines.
Suppes first heard about the Farnesworth fusor from Robert Bussard’s Google Tech Talk. With DARPA’s permission, Brussard described his work on Polywell reactors. The Polywell is a refinement of the Farnesworth fusor, but has the potential for significant net energy production. Suppes knew little of physics, but decided that with a little help from the open source community, he could make a fusor for himself. His blog
and Github repository show step-by-step exactly how he did it. In the video below, you can see a talk that Suppes gave at Wired 2012.
Can you really create fusion at home?
The biggest challenge to homebrew fusion is creating a spot where the conditions are just right. Typically a vacuum chamber that can tolerate some heat is needed. In university and industrial research labs a vacuum system is built using standard erector set pieces called “conflat flange” mounts. Prior to Ebay, the best way to get value out of an old vacuum system was to recycle it for the nickel and chrome in the steel. Today however, passing these systems on to someone who can use them is just a matter of a few clicks.
Another thing Suppes had going for him was the capability to design and 3D print heat resistant parts in the complex geometry needed for the Polywell device. The Polywell is basically a set of electromagnetic coils positioned in a precise geometry that enables charged particles to be confined. Ceramic is needed because other heat resistant materials, like metals, would perturb the field and let particles escape.
The most important a tool for Suppes was the willingness of skilled individuals to help him at every turn. As the 38th person to build a working fusor, there was a lot of technical know-how floating around. Suppes was able to collect that information into one place and package it in a way anyone can understand. His approach of publish first, then review, has been catching on as the new way to do science. Not every person cares about the research that their tax dollars fund, but those who do care have demanded access to it — and are getting it.
A cautionary note is perhaps in order. David Hahn, also known as the radioactive boy scout, was a child prodigy who built a subcritical fission reactor in his backyard using tiny amounts of radioactive material from many smoke detectors. He eventually became obsessed with his hobby and landed himself in the hospital for treatment of possible radiation injuries, and then in jail allegedly for larceny. The risks from radiation are not the same with fission as with fusion. High energy X-rays and neutrons are created in a fusor and need need to be respected accordingly.
The fire that Farnsworth lit years ago continues to burn bright. The untimely death of Brussard, just a year after his Google Talk and initial results with the Polywell device offered the torch, and Suppes and others have run with it. Big science concentrates all the money and knowledge on large projects that can’t fail, but it is slowly yielding to smallscience, where nimble, crowd-funded and -sourced projects can gracefully die if they don’t yield productive results. Not every scientist is compelled to fuse atoms, nor every layperson, but with enough people working on the problem and communicating their results and techniques openly, humankind will one day harness the power of the Sun (perhaps through a Sun-encompassing Dyson sphere, hm?)