Nuclear power in your basement

Years ago in the 50’s, nuclear energy was the big idea of the time. Clean and nearly limitless energy for everybody was the promise, and ideas such as having a home nuclear power station were even floated to provide independence from the power grid.. I was so impressed with this idea that I did lots of work in nuclear physics even at my own high school, building a 1 MEV cyclotron (a form of atom smasher) which I powered with my dad’s arc welder.

After winning my state science fair, I went to the national science fair with it, but didn’t win there, partly because I think I terrified some of the judges when I fired it up. Getting it there was quite a job, lugging a 1200 pound steel electromagnet cross country and setting it up again was a good lesson in logistics.

I even started out in college in nuclear engineering, then 3 Mile Island happened and I saw the handwriting on the wall. Nuclear fission, which is what we use now, creates all sorts of radioactive isotopes as byproducts of the fission, and they remain radioactive for thousands of years, making disposal/storage a problem.

Nuclear FUSION on the other hand, doesn’t have such byproduct problems, and its been the holy grail of clean nuclear power for 50+ years, but it’s been elusive because its so difficult to do and still produce a net power gain.

That’s why I found this story from the Detroit Free Press interesting, it hit close to home, building a nuclear fusion reactor in your basement brings back memories of my own tinkering. Maybe someday, we’ll see a safe and clean fusion reactor in your home. If I’m still of this earth, I’ll be the first to buy one.

The work this young man did in his basement was a continuance of work done by eccentric inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, who is credited with inventing television, though RCA clearly stole the idea from him and commercialized it.

Farnsworth’s approach to fusion has been dubbed “Inertial Electrostatic Confinement” or “IEC” for short. (VERY) simply put, the process uses forces within the atomic particles themselves to bring them close enough to fuse. The more common approach uses tremendous external forces to achieve the same effect. These enormous machines employ powerful magnetic fields and the method is called “magnetic confinement” Literally billions of dollars have been spent in the last thirty years with little to show in the way of meaningful results. After thirty years, the “experts” still say that a practical fusion power plant is still – would you believe? – at least another thirty years away.

This article underscores why we need to encourage more science and technology
for our youth. The US keeps slipping behind.

Detroit Free Press
TEEN GOES NUCLEAR: He creates fusion in his Oakland Township home
November 19, 2006

On the surface, Thiago Olson is like any typical teenager.

But to his friends, Thiago is known as "the mad scientist."


Thiago Olson, 17,
stands near his nuclear fusion reactor, which he calls "the Fusor," at
home in Oakland Township on Friday. After more than two years and 1,000 hours of
research, the Stoney Creek High School senior, with a little help from his dad,
built the machine. (PATRICIA BECK/Detroit Free Press)

In the basement of his parents’ Oakland Township home, tucked away in an area
most aren’t privy to see, Thiago is exhausting his love of physics on a project
that has taken him more than two years and 1,000 hours to research and build —
a large, intricate machine that , on a small scale, creates nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fusion — when atoms are combined to create energy — is "kind
of like the holy grail of physics," he said.

In fact, on,
the Stoney Creek senior is ranked as the 18th amateur in the world to create
nuclear fusion. So, how does he do it?

Pointing to the steel chamber where all the magic happens, Thiago said on
Friday that this piece of the puzzle serves as a vacuum. The air is sucked out
and into a filter.

Then, deuterium gas — a form of hydrogen — is injected into the vacuum.
About 40,000 volts of electricity are charged into the chamber from a piece of
equipment taken from an old mammogram machine. As the machine runs, the atoms in
the chamber are attracted to the center and soon — ta da — nuclear fusion.

Thiago said when that happens, a small intense ball of energy forms.

He first achieved fusion in September and has been perfecting the machine he
built in his parents’ garage ever since.

This year, Thiago was a semifinalist for the Siemens Foundation’s National
Research Competition. He plans to enter the Science and Engineering Fair of
Metropolitan Detroit, which is in March, in hopes of qualifying to be in the
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in New Mexico in May.

To his mom and dad, he’s still reminiscent of the 5-year-old who toiled over
a kid-friendly chemistry set and, then at age 9, was able to change the battery
in his older brother’s car.

Now, in a small room in the basement, Thiago has set up a science lab —
where bottles marked "potassium hydroxide" and "methanol"
sit on shelves and a worn, old book, titled "The Atomic Fingerprint:
Neutron Activation Analysis" piled among others in the empty sink.

Thiago’s mom, Natalice Olson, initially was leery of the project, even though
the only real danger from the fusion machine is the high voltage and small
amount of X-rays emitted through a glass window in the vacuum chamber — through
which Olson videotapes the fusion in action..

But, she wasn’t really surprised, since he was always coming up with lofty

"Originally, he wanted to build a hyperbaric chamber," she said,
adding that she promptly said no. But, when he came asking about the nuclear
fusion machine, she relented.

"I think it was pretty brave that he could think that he was capable to
do something so amazing," she said.

Thiago’s dad, Mark Olson, helped with some of the construction and electrical
work. To get all of the necessary parts, Thiago scoured the Internet, buying
items on eBay and using his age to persuade manufacturers to give him discounts.
The design of the model came from his own ideas and some suggestions from other
science-lovers he met online.

Someday, he hopes to work for the federal government — just like his
grandfather, Clarence Olson, who designed tanks for the Department of Defense
after World War II. Thiago, who is modest and humble about his accomplishment,
said he knew from an early age what he would do for a living.

"I was always interested in science," he said. "It’s always
been my best subject in school."

But, his mom had other ideas.

"I thought he was going to be a cook," Natalice Olson said,
"because he liked to mix things."