Weird and Wonderful: A Homemade Nuclear Reactor in NYC

Does this headline shock you? Frighten you? Does it conjure images of cells of the al Q operating in the land of the too open-minded where things like trafficking in fissionable material would probably get a pass?

Rest easy. The nuclear reaction in this case is fusion, not fission. The fission reaction, you will remember, was the star of The China Syndrome, as well as the tragedies of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Bikini Atoll. Today fission is the star of all commercial nuclear reactors that bring us our daily dose of Internet, TV, radio, and hair drying. The fusion reaction is the star of nothing. Yet.

Fusion stands as one of the great hopes for clean energy: a possible way to not muss up the planet but still feed our runaway energy appetite. It is considered safer because it doesn’t use fissionable material at all. That’s why it’s called “fusion” and not “fission.” Fusionable material is made up of cute little atoms like Hydrogen and Helium, rather than those big honking things like Uranium and Plutonium.

Does that make you feel safer? Maybe, what difference does the size of the atom make? There are hydrogen bombs at any rate, right? Yes, but not really: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_bomb.

But besides that, there are lots of advantages of fusion over fission, environmentally speaking: http://www.firstscience.com/home/articles/big-theories/nuclear-fusion-energy-for-the-future_17006.html

So considering all that, it’s not surprising that there’s a cult of DIYers researching fusion in their basements and garages and back yards. They’re connected not by a desire to destroy the western world as we know and love it, but by their obsession with solving this last great puzzle. Lest you think these folks are nothing more than weirdo members of some secret alchemical society, be aware that the big boys–the governments of the world–are doing the math too. Apparently, those with the power and money take fusion very seriously.

But the DIYers don’t want to wait around for them. And they’re not just crackpots hiding a cache of heliums and hydrogens next to the AK47s under the floorboards of the basement. They’re regular working stiffs with jobs and benefits and everything, who are tired of reading about the ills of the world and nobody doing nothing. They’re rising to the occasion and searching for a solution. While you and I are doing yet another in an endless stream of Sudoku puzzles, these folks are using their powers of logic to save the future.

Reminds me of the 70s when the tinkerers at that time were working up some decent solar panels and heat pumps. Everyone wrote them off as nutty survivalists, but look what their commitment in the face of derision has led to.

It’s a weird and wonderful world if you can just get past your cynicism and fear.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s bookshelf at BVC

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Weird and Wonderful: A Homemade Nuclear Reactor in NYC — 1 Comment

  1. To get energy from fusion, you need to have enough energy to overcome the repulsion of the nuclei. You also have to trap the alpha particles and neutrons in a uranium or plutonium container. Otherwise, instead of an energy source, you’ll have the equivalent of a neutron bomb. Getting high enough energy and effective confinement is not the same order of business as making solar panels, which are essentially passive receptors of a natural energy source.