When I was 18 I was excited by the many possibilities the world offered. And, by possibilities, you understand that I mean boobs. At that tender age we could drive to Wisconsin for beer since having teenage drunks navigating the highways late at night seemed like such a good idea. So essentially, at 18, I was a beer loving horn dog. Who played bass. I wasn’t a complete drain on society. Anyway, I was, in many ways, a typical 18 year old kid. I had done well in high school, graduated on the honor roll, was taking some classes at a community college and holding down a real job in a warehouse. I had my own car and some cool stuff. You might not have wanted me to date your daughter but I doubt I would have impressed you for good or ill. I was just one of a zillion other teenagers getting ready to face the 80’s. And, yes, I rocked me some serious 80’s hair.
What I did not do, and what none of my friends did, was head on out to the garage and build a nuclear reactor. Conrad Fanrsworth, on the other hand, did exactly that.
A US teenager has built a nuclear fusion reactor in his dad’s garage, he told RIA Novosti on Monday, adding his name to a select group of a dozen high school students from around the world who have achieved fusion with homemade devices.
Conrad Farnsworth’s reactor is small and built with parts he ordered online.
The 18-year-old from Newcastle, Wyoming, built the device as his entry for the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), in which thousands of high school students from around the world compete for $4 million in scholarships, prize money, prestige and things to put on their resumes.
Farnsworth’s homemade reactor did not win the ISEF competition, but it did allow him to add his name to a very short list of youngsters who have created nuclear fusion reactors. Most of them are American, with the exception of Michal Racko of Slovakia.
As Farnsworth’s achievement made the news in the United States, older science nerds wondered if the Wyoming teen and the other youngsters had, in fact, built their own reactors and achieved fusion, or if the US media were getting it wrong.
“…Fifteen high school students in the world have built nuclear fusion reactors. How is this possible?” asked Joel on a physics chat forum.
“It’s possible that the newspaper reporters didn’t understand the distinction between an accelerator and a reactor,” said Ben Crowell on the forum.
Farnsworth told RIA Novosti in an email that the reactor he built “is an accelerator of sorts, using electrostatic attraction (- attracting +).
“Sometimes collisions between hydrogen (deuterium) nuclei occur and sometimes those collisions actually fuse the nuclei together. It’s all a game of probability,” he said.
Back on the grown-up physics chat forum, Terry Bollinger wondered if the homemade reactor was able to generate “useful net outputs of energy.”
“That you cannot do even in the most advanced fusion test center in existence,” Bollinger noted.
Farnsworth says on his website that “amateur reactors will never produce power; their main purpose is education.”
He told RIA Novosti on Monday that “there will never EVER… be a net power output or anywhere close to a net power output” from his reactor.
“If I were ever able to generate useable power out of this, I would be long dead from the radiation poisoning that would ensue,” he added.
That’s not to say that nuclear power achieved by fusion is unsafe. The energy form has been touted as having the potential to provide almost limitless supplies of clean, safe and sustainable energy without the downsides of nuclear power produced by fission.
Today’s nuclear power plants produce energy by splitting apart the heavy atoms of uranium fuel – fission — while fusion reactors fuse together atoms.
Unlike nuclear-fission power plants, fusion reactors do not produce high-level radioactive waste and cannot be used for military purposes.
“But the reason it would kill me is because I have no way of shielding myself from the radiation coming from my device, other than using distance,” Farnsworth said.
“A professional, power-generating reactor would be shielded and much safer.”
Among the other teens who have built nuclear fusion reactors are 15-year-old Thiago Olson, whose device produced just enough heat to warm up a cup of coffee, and Taylor Wilson, who is, so far, the youngest fusion reactor builder, completing his at the age of 14.
That’s right, while your kids were trying to hack into your Skinamax account these kids were auditioning for NASA. So where do kids go to learn how to build a nuclear reactor when their friends are being challenged by the TV remote? Why, they use the internet of course. Yes, it’s true, there is stuff online that isn’t porn.
You may have noted above that Conrad did not win the science fair. The reason was that a jealous adult ruled him ineligible on a technicality that even the event’s organizers were stunned to find out exists.
It seems Conrad had competed in too many science fairs.
Because, God forbid we encourage a kid to make himself and the world better. What if that craziness caught on?
Who would be left to watch Maury?