This article is a sample from DISCOVER's special Extreme Universe issue, available only on newsstands through March 22.
Most college freshmen fill their dorm rooms with clothes, books, and electronics. Thiago Olson also brought his fusion reactor. But Vanderbilt University drew the line: No do-it-yourself reactors in the dorm! Instead, his device was housed in a nearby laboratory.
Olson’s project was motivated by the challenge of doing fusion—and by the same promise that has inspired thousands of physicists over the past half century. Nuclear fusion is the energy source that powers the sun; if channeled correctly, it could become a major source of clean energy here on Earth. Fusion occurs when the nuclei of two atoms are forced so close to each other that they bind together, releasing a great deal of energy in the process. Because positively charged nuclei forcefully repel each other, though, high temperatures are needed to bring about a union. Most fusion reactors are therefore enormous machines, like the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility that recently opened in California.
Olson and a small cadre of other amateur nuclear engineers have found a simpler way. They are creating home-grown reactors, welding and wiring the devices in their backyards, garages, and basements (much to the alarm of neighbors). The hazards to the community are slim, the main ones being heavy use of electricity and short-range radiation that can be of risk to the “fusioneers” themselves. You can find out more about building a fusion reactor at www.fusor.net, an online community of fusioneers who help each other find parts, assemble, and problem solve. Also, check out a pair of books, Radiation Detection and Measurement by Glenn F. Knoll and Building Scientific Apparatus by John H. Moore.
If you decide to proceed, though, a few cautions: Beware of high-voltage electricity, which can skyrocket to more than 50,000 volts—enough that contact with a loose wire will kill you instantly. Pressurized flammable gas can also be fatal. And electrons hitting the stainless steel chamber produce X-rays, so do not look at the little window directly. Instead use a camera or leaded glass filter. Contact your state’s department of health for regulations. Your reactor will use a lot more energy than it produces. It is barely capable of achieving a detectable nuclear reaction, so fusion is one of the least hazardous parts of this project.
For those who would like to join in on the fusion fun, DISCOVER offers this guide to the essentials. With a lot of scrounging for cheap parts online or at scrapyards, plus a lot of elbow grease, it is possible to put together a fusion reactor for as little as $1,000. If you need fusion right now, though, you can pay retail and get what you need for about $20,000.