Friday, September 19, 2003

Fun with fusion: Freshman's nuclear fusion reactor has physics faculty in awe

Wallace, a baby-faced tennis player fresh out of Spanish Fork High School, had almost the entire physics faculty of Utah State University hovering (and arguing) over an apparatus he had cobbled together from parts salvaged from junk yards and charity drops.

The apparatus is nothing less than the sine qua non of modern science: a nuclear fusion reactor, based on the plans of Utah's own Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television.

The reactor sat on a table with an attached vacuum pump wheezing away. A television monitor showed what was inside: a glowing ball of gas surrounded by a metal helix.

The ball is, literally, a small sun, where an electric field forces deuteron ions (a form of hydrogen) to gather, bang together and occasionally fuse, spitting out a neutron each time fusion occurs.

"Here I am with this thing here," Wallace mused, looking at his surroundings. "Who'da thought?"

Wallace and Farnsworth are much alike. Both are (or were — Farnsworth died in 1971) tinkerers. While Wallace was in grade school, his mother got a flat tire while he was riding with her. He fixed it. For his part, Farnsworth began improvising electric motors at a young age. Both went on to bigger and better things.

"He was never motivated to take science," said Wallace's father, Allen Wallace. "It was really the tinkering that motivated him."

When Craig was a sophomore in high school, browsing the Internet he discovered that Farnsworth had come up with a way to create deuteron ion plasma, a prerequisite to fusion.

While it was not good for production of energy (the source of much embarrassment to the University of Utah in the cold fusion debacle in the late 1980s), Farnsworth's design did emit neutrons, a useful tool for commercial applications and scientific experimentation.

"He (Farnsworth) was after the Holy Grail of excess energy, but everyone agrees that it's mostly useful as a neutron generator," Allen Wallace said.

About 30 such devices exist around the country, owned by such entities as Los Alamos National Laboratories, NASA and universities. ("I bet I'm the only high school student that has one," Craig Wallace said.)

EL - this is another low temperature, low pressure fusion reaction device as the mostly fringe scientists have taken to calling "cold fusion".

No comments: