No, not really mad… just Richard Hull turning down the lights in his lab while demonstrating his Fusor IV today at HEAS – the High Energy Amateur Science confab at his home and lab in Richmond, Virginia. More photos and stories when I get home….
by Paul Schatzkin
October 1, 2015
What’s wrong with this picture?
Tomorrow (Friday, October 2) I will be driving from Nashville up to Richmond, Virginia for the annual gathering of the HEAS – the High Energy Amateur Science club. This loosely-configured assembly of dedicated science nerds has gathered on the first Saturday of every October for 25 years now – this year will be the 26th. The event attracts people from all over the country who come to demonstrate and talk about the amazing things they are building in their basements and garages, many of them exploring the most esoteric areas of high voltage phenomena worthy of the likes of Nikola Tesla.
This will be my fourth or fifth excursion to meet up with this unique tribe of real-life characters from The Big Bang Theory. It is held each year at the home and laboratory of Richard Hull, who also happens to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on Tesla, the amazing Tesla Coil, and what Tesla did or did not actually doin his lifetime (apart from the vast mythology that has formed around the cult of his personality in the past decade or so).
I first met Richard back in 2000, after I tacked some information about the Farnsworth Fusor to the end of The Farnsworth Chronicles, which I had posted as as sidebar to “songs.com” – the Internet music site I started in 1995. Once I’d discovered I had the ability to “self publish” whatever I wanted to the web, I scanned and uploaded the Farnsworth biography I’d had lying fallow since the 1970s. At the end I wondered if there was anybody out in the worldie-wide-web who might be interested in the work that Philo Farnsworth – you know, the guy who invented television (I know, you probably didn’t know…) – did in the last two decades of his life. In the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth invented a novel approach to nuclear fusion – the same process that drives the sun and stars.
Fusion was then and is now still the holy grail of modern science. Given its history, it’s no surprise that a vast array of skeptics insist that the promise of fusion as the solution to our energy needs (and now pollution-generated climate change) is something that is “twenty years in the future and always will be…”
Now the question – and the discussion I want to have – is: did Philo Farnsworth find a viable approach to energy generation through nuclear fusion some fifty years ago? And if so, why aren’t we living in the fusion-powered future NOW?
When Richard Hull and I first started to confer with each other, he was just beginning to build his first fusor, spurred on by a fellow named Tom Ligon who was a disciple of another fusion researcher, the late Robert Bussard, who had was developed his own version of the Farnsworth process called the Polywell. Richard has since been the de-facto leader of the tribe, the most active and consistent participant in the growing, global community that is Fusor.net.
Over the course of the ensuing decade and half, what started out as a simple forum in one of the earliest online bulletin board formats has grown through several iterations into fusor.net – behind which lies a vast database of knowledge compiled by hundreds of people around the world who are experimenting with their own variations of Farnsworth’s invention. Between them, these (mostly) “amateur” (in the best possible meaning of the word) scientists produce on a daily basis more actual nuclear fusion than all of the expensively funded experiments being conducted at the behest of governments, corporations and institutions around the world combined.
But here’s the thing: this cadre of “fusioneers” – uniquely accomplished as they are, and in spite of the vast trove of knowledge they have helped assemble over the years – are not really experimenting with the Farnsworth Fusor. They’re experimenting with what I call the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth Fusor. This simplified version of the Fusor was first built by colleagues of Farnsworth’s in the mid 1960s. Robert Hirsch and Gene Meeks built their version of the fusor on a dessert cart – so that it could be wheeled in to a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to demonstrate Inertial Electrostatic Confinement. These events are well documented in the latter chapters of my book, “The Boy Who Invented Television.”
It is this “dessert cart” fusor that the Legion of Fusioneers are building in their basements and garages.
The simple fact of the matter is that nobody has built or tested an actual “Farnsworth Fusor” in more than 50 years. Think of how far technology has come in those five decades. Imagine a Fusor with computerized controls…
And now we read that the Titans of Tech – innovators and digital industrialists who have amassed unimaginable fortunes over the past three decades – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a whole new array of fusion concepts:
America has six private-sector fusion projects underway, according to a new report by the research firm Third Way. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel has backed Helion Energy of Redmond, Wash. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has put money behind Tri Alpha Energy in Irvine, Calif., which has reportedly raised $140 million. And Bezos Expeditions, the investment fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is backing a Vancouver company called General Fusion, which so far has raised $94 million.
But the undeniable fact is: none of the approaches to fusion that any of these Tech Titans are funding is anywhere near as simple or elegant as the device that Philo Farnsworth first created in the late 1950s.
In 2001, I got to spend some time with Gene Meeks, the co-creator of the Hirsch Meeks Variation. Gene was as close to the critical work in the Farnsworth laboratory as anybody, and spoke in guarded terms about his experience. But when pressed on the subject, Gene finally spoke wistfully of a fusor iteration called “Prime II” and its prospects for achieving “breakeven” – that elusive goal of all fusion research, where the energy coming out of the reaction is greater than the energy it takes to make the atoms fuse.
“We were close,” Gene Meeks said of the Prime II. ”Very close….”
If that was the case, then what I want to know – the discussion I want to have – is: why isn’t any money being invested to revisit the Farnsworth Fusor?
Now, I could be completely off base here. Despite having founded this site almost two decades ago, I am arguably speaking from a vantage point of somebody who is only minimally knowledgeable in the field. Unlike the countless contributors who have combined their efforts over a decade-and-a-half to form the vast database that is Fusor.net, I have never built anything more complicated than a slot-car – and that was also 50 years ago.
So maybe they all know something I don’t know. Maybe the discussion is moot. Maybe it has been proven somewhere that by the mid 1960s, Farnsworth was operating with faculties greatly diminished by decades of substance abuse. Maybe, as some have contended, the Fusor is a dead end, but fun to experiment with.
Or maybe the the truth is closer to the story I first heard about Farnsworth and fusion, on a hillside in Santa Cruz California in the summer of 1973.
I had first heard of Philo T. Farnsworth in the “Videocity” edition of a publication called Radical Software – this edition named for San Francisco – the city where Farnsworth first demonstrated electronic video in 1927. Later that summer I went out to the west coast to seek my fortune in the television business. That September I went up the coast to Santa Cruz, and met a friend of the Farnsworth family. He told me an the apocryphal story he had heard from Farnsworth’s eldest son, Philo T. Farnsworth III about the day his father put aside his fusion work. The story goes something like this:
Imagine a young boy watching from the doorway of his father’s laboratory while the father operates an amazing machine – a ‘star in a jar.’ The young boy watches as his father puts the machine through its paces, spinning off an eery, other-worldly light as the small synthetic star burns brightly. And then he watches as his father – satisfied that the device worked as intended – dismantled it in such a way that it would never work again, and placed the piece that made it work on a high shelf where nobody would ever find it.
That is, essentially, the story I first heard in the summer of 1973.
Two years later, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Philo T. Farnsworth III. Over the course of the following decade we became good and trusting friends and shared many amazing moments together. After I’d know him a while, I finally told him about that story, and asked him if there was any truth to it.
“That’s a pretty good story,” Philo said, “if a bit fantastic. But I’ll tell you this much: the patents that my father filed… are incomplete.”
In other words, something was removed from the public disclosures – the patents – that make all the difference in how the device that Farnsworth built works or doesn’t work.
Maybe the time has come to invest some small portion of the tech millions that are being poured into these new experiments to find out once and for all if the answer has been with us all along.
That’s the discussion I want to have now.
Once I heard the story about The Boy Who Built A Clock, I wondered how long it would be before somebody made a connection between that and the people around the world who are building nuclear fusion reactors in their basements and garages. I got the answer to that this morning. On Facebook, of course:
Isn’t this the outfit that got a whole lot of press last year when they got some funding from one of Silicon Valley’s start-up incubators?
“What Helion is trying to achieve is to shoot two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at each other at one million miles per hour to collide within an indescribably strong magnetic field to create a 100 million degree Celsius reaction for a millisecond.”
It’s always interesting to see what fusion research looked like in the early days….
…if for no other reason than because it affords some insight into just why, as Richard Hull (among others) is so fond of saying, “Fusion is 20 years in the future and always will be…”
It is also intriguing to see the subject of fusion being picked up among the tech cognoscenti, as in this article that appeared recently on the popular tech-geared site Gizmodo, which describes Lyman Spitzer’s “Stellarator” – one of the earliest magnetic confinement schemes:
Virtually all plasma physics research throughout the 1950s and 1960s occurred on Stellarators. The Model C, above, was the largest of these devices. … It entered service in 1962 and immediately blew the doors off of the earlier figure-8 design. It incorporated a pair of major innovations—the divertor, which sucked unwanted waste particles out of the stream without disrupting the confinement field, and ICRH that uses radio waves to force the ions to spin around the center axis of the field the same way the wire helix of the earlier models wound around the central core of their support matrix—mitigated earlier models’ issues with plasma loss.
Well, certainly no jargon there!
The Stellarator was an early attempt at “magnetic confinement” of a fusion reaction – in other words, marshalling titanic external forces in the service of confining a plasma and squeezing ions together. It sounds reasonable enough, but magnetic confinement was once likened to “trying to contain a scoop of jello with rubber bands.”
It strikes me that all that “jargon” is the scientific description of how you keep the jello from escaping.
And I dare say it’s been a long time coming…
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.
I really do need to keep better track of my daily Google Alerts. Unfortunately, I’ve become somewhat immune to them. The fusion alerts, in particular, are usually about the ITER or the NIF or some giant government funded fusion boondoggle. They show up in my inbox everyday, and I mostly ignore them.
So I missed this when it showed up in my inbox last week: an appearance on the David Letterman show by Jamie Edwards, the 13-year-old from Lancashire, England, who is now the youngest person to ever build a fusor and achieve a nuclear fusion reaction.
The appearance actually begins just few seconds prior to this video. Letterman has introduced Jamie who has taken his seat on the sofa, and the conversation begins:
Unlike his immediate predecessor in the “youngest fusioneer” sweepstakes, Jamie is modest, well spoken, and even a bit funny as he deflects Dave’s attempts to make light of something he barely comprehends.
What’s ironic is that this appearance is on that gizmo called television, and there’s no mention of the fact that the same guy who created the fusion process that they’re talking about also invented the medium they’re talking about it on. But, that’s the way it goes when Philo Farnsworth is the topic.
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But… wait! Despite all the coverage of Jamie’s work – and his appearance on a big-time US network TeeVee show – it turns out that Jamie’s claims of having achieved actual fusion (as evidenced by the production of neutrons) remains unsubstantiated as of this date. There is a thread of discussion on this in the fusor forums, read it here.
Previously, Taylor Wilson was the youngest fusioneer, achieving fusion in his own home-built reactor at age 14.
Now we have 13 year old Jamie Edwards:
And now we know the missing ingredient in a successful fusion operation:
Jamie Edwards is the boy from Preston who two weeks ago entered the record books as the youngest person — he was 13 — in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor. George Barker is his assistant, sidekick and loyal best friend.
George, 13, says: ‘I organise meetings for Jamie, and tidy up for him — he’s really, really messy; you should see his bedroom, it’s a right tip with stuff everywhere! I make brews for him — he prefers hot chocolate with just a little bit of milk.’
As of today – May 8, 2013 – the transition to our new home and platform is nearly complete.
By and large, the whole process was relatively painless. We hit only minor obstacles in the migration. We had to shut down for a couple of days when we we discovered one “feature” that had to be turned off. But once we got it back up the adjusting went pretty quickly and smoothly.
We’re still learning our way around. Today, for example, we discovered that the Forum Search function is going to take some finessing. And we’re still trying to get users to change their profile and Login/User ID so that real names will appear on the forum Index page – that could take some time.
I spent most of today transferring setting up this WordPress portion of the site, and transferring all the resources for newbies to a new page just for newcomers.
Now we’ll see if I can keep maintain a more regular info-flow to this front page than I have in the past. I’m not the most reliable or consistent blogger in the world. I just post when something strikes me. The real content on this page is user generated in the forums.
Please feel free to offer any feedback or suggestions you have for the new format. It’s still a work in progress (and always will be).
If you’ve made it this far, then you’ll notice things have changed considerably. We have relocated Fusor.net to a new server host. Everything about the site has changed.
The front page (that you are looking at now) is no longer hosted by TypePad; it is now it’s own, stand-alone, WordPress installation.
And the heart of the site – the Fusor Forums – have been converted from the platform that has served us for the past decade (called w-agora) to pretty much the industry standard for this sort of thing, phpBB.
Basically, what we have done here is throw up the frame and roof, and moved right in. Now we have to finish the walls and the trim, plug in a few appliances and hang some paintings on the walls before this is going to feel like home again.
And we’re all going to have to get used to doing some things differently. The new site has been active for less than 24 hours as I type this, and those of us who try to keep the wheels turning here are just getting under the hood to start tuning things up. (House building… engine tuning… my mother always loved it when I mixed metaphors…).
It’s up, it’s running, but it’s a really a whole new site in many respects.
So bear with us…
And thanks to all who have helped get us this far: Tyler Christensen, Carl Willis, Frank Sans and Richard Hull. Thanks also to Marc Druilhe, the developer of the old w-agora format, who implemented the conversion to phpBB. And welcome aboard to Michael Lovett, my friend and a developer here in Nashville who will help with some of the UI/UX details as the new site evolves.
And thanks too to the nearly three dozens members/users of this site who contributed sufficient funds to finance this transition. Their generosity has assured not only the successful transfer/migration of the site to its new host and platform, but is sufficient to keep the site running for another year or two, at least.
So we’re in good shape, just gotta get a few changes under our belt.
That’s all for now…
aka “The Perfesser”
Fusor.net Founder and Host
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*Fusor.net v3.0? I think the songs.com installation – which served from about 1998 to 2000, was like version 1; the very short-lived “Intranets” forum was… let’s call it v1.5. The w-agora platform that served the past decade was v2. So consider this Version 3.