Author Archives: AdFusormin

The Future’s So Bright…

… we really are going to need shades…

Imagine being dropped into the middle of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” Then imagine taking LSD. Then imagine that the episode runs for like 12 or 14 hours…

Now you’ve got some idea what this past Saturday was like for me…

The occasion was the 26th annual gathering of HEAS – The High Energy Amateur Science group – a loose-nit gang of high voltage, radiation, and fringe science enthusiasts from all over the country who gather at the home and lab of Richard Hull in Richmond Virginia to talk gizmos.

This was my fourth or fifth time attending this event, but even so I felt woefully “out of my league.” I attended because this is the best chance I have every year to visit with the people who inhabit Fusor.net – the site I started back in 1998 to foster discussion among people who are interested in Philo T. Farnsworth’s approach to nuclear fusion.

I felt out of place, but there I was…

I think the tone of the weekend was set early on, when I was chatting with an 18 year old from Seattle named Noah Hoppis, who pulled a small – wait for it – geiger counter! out of his pocket.  He proceeded to explain how it works, how he got it, what he does with it, etc.

Noah was there with an older friend of his family, a woman named Linda who lives in the area and was providing transportation for the weekend.  I watched as Linda’s eyes glazed over, and at one point she said, “I understand all the individual words, but once he starts stringing them together…. he loses me.”

Which is pretty much how I felt the entire day.

I am at best marginally conversant in these questions of advanced science and physics.  Remember, I’m the guy who basically got flunked out of physics in high-school because I was a pain in the ass for the teacher.  That was in the 11th grade, and I spent the semester in the principals office pulling wires out of an early kind of computer circuit board.  The symbolism is pretty rich…

Despite my failure in any kind of academic scientific pursuit, I have some capacity for staying tuned in long enough to get a sense of the big picture, and maybe even some talent for distilliing the Broad Concepts into language that the average reader can comprehend.  I’ve done it in two books, and occasionally somebody will tell me “you said that pretty clearly” or words to that effect.  I smile and think to myself, “fooled ‘em again…”

So I spent the first two hours being a million miles – light years? – out of my comfort zone… thinking, “I have no business being here.”

After a few hours of that, I finally settled down and got my camera out and started taking some pictures.

First, here is Richard Hull himself, as his fusor runs on the apparatus around him.  Just over his left shoulder is the fusion chamber itself, and over his right shoulder is the video image of the actual “star in a a jar” reaction inside that chamber:

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Now, of course, the reaction that Richard has created is pretty “low yield.”  1-2 million neutrons emitted per second may sound like a lot, but that level is safe to be in the same room with.  Exponentially, that yield is expressed as 1x10E6 (1 times ten-to-the-sixth) “Breakeven” for a system like this is predicted to occur somewhere between 10E12 and 10E14. Let me do the math for you: that would be somewhere between 10 and 100 TRILLION neutrons per second.  We ain’t there yet.

But fear not.  Here’s my favorite single photo of the weekend:

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This is Scott Moroch and Jack Rosky, two students at a high school in Wayne New Jersey who are building – yes – their ow nuclear fusion reactor.   What Scott is holding in his hand is a model of the fusion chamber they plan to build that they rendered in a 3D printer. The model is plastic, the real thing will be stainless steel (and considerably larger).  Now THAT’s using new technology to create new technology…

Finally, my favorite demonstration of the weekend:

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….where in Robert Tubbs looks on and assists as Dr. Kevin Dunn from the Hampton-Sidney College in Virginia demonstrates a form of “Caveman Chemistry” – namely a prehistoric chemical process called “fire.”

Conducted in the presence of the Fusor, it’s an intriguing juxtaposition of “Fire Version One” with “Fire Version 2.” Kevin made the point that “civilization” essentially begins with the discovery and control of “Fire v1.0″ What becomes of “civilization” if/when we finally control “Fire v2.0″?

And, not surprisingly, it is no easy feat to make fire from two pieces of wood. It takes some coordination to rapidly and repeatedly pull the bow back and forth to spin the spindle while pressing the spindle down against the second piece of wood.   It takes a bit of practice and perseverance to get the hang of it.

And I’m sure that, back at the beginning of time, there was one caveman telling the other caveman, “fire from two pieces of wood?!? That’s NEVER gonna work!”

And yet…

Watching these young guys try their hand at making fire – and knowing that they would go home to resume their efforts to build and operate a fusion reactor, I came up with this new rule: You’re not aloud to make “nuclear fire” until you have demonstrated that you are capable of making “carbon fire.”

You know, first things first…

 

The Mad Scientist

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….

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OK, I Want To Have THIS Discussion NOW

by Paul Schatzkin
October 1, 2015

What’s wrong with this picture?

These Titans of Tech are investing HUNDREDS of millions of dollars on nuclear fusion experiments.  Why not invest a few million into the most proven, cost-effective means of generating a fusion reaction demonstrated in the past 50 years?

These Titans of Tech are investing HUNDREDS of millions of dollars on nuclear fusion experiments. Why not invest a few million into the most proven, cost-effective means of generating a fusion reaction demonstrated in the past 50 years?

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.

Richard Hull at HEAS 2011, Fusor IV on the workbench behind him.

Richard Hull at HEAS 2011, Fusor IV on the workbench behind him. (click to embiggen)

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?

The "star in a jar" - the actual fusion reaction in Fusor IV

The “star in a jar” – the actual fusion reaction in Fusor IV (click to embiggen)

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.

Robert Hirsch and Bill Blaising with the original "Dessert Cart" fusor, ca. 1964 (click to embiggen)

Robert Hirsch and Steve Blaising with the original “Dessert Cart” fusor, ca. 1964 (click to embiggen)

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.

Gene Meeks and an actual Farnsworth Fusor, ca. 1963

Gene Meeks and an actual Farnsworth Fusor, ca. 1963

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….”

Gene Meeks in May, 2001 - discussing the only true "Farnsworth" fusor still extant in the world.

Gene Meeks in May, 2001 – discussing the only Farnsworth-era fusor still extant in the world. Unfortunately, it’s mostly a Hirsch design – as evidence by the closed, spherical inner sphere.

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:

The cathode from an actual Farnsworth Fusor, found at the museum in Rigby Idaho in July 2003.  Could this be the "missing piece" that makes the Fusor viable?

The cathode from an actual Farnsworth Fusor, found at the museum in Rigby Idaho in July 2003. Could this be the “missing piece” that makes the Fusor viable?

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.

Someday... a fusion powered future.  But maybe not to the species grows up.

Someday… a fusion powered future. But maybe not until the species grows up…

Welcome to Fusor.net v3.0*

FusorHQGreetings from FusorHQ.

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…

Paul Schatzkin
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.