By Jason Albee
Around the turn of the 20th century, there lived a young boy named Philo Farnsworth. He grew up on a farm in Idaho, but his interests eclipsed agriculture. He had an aptitude for chemistry and physics, particularly when it came to electronics.
Drawing inspiration from the back-and-forth motion used to plow fields, Farnsworth worked out the principle of his electronic “image dissector” in 1921, just after his 15th birthday. He had invented what we know as television, one of the most important inventions in human history.
Despite winning a patent interference dispute against RCA, Farnsworth never became rich from inventing TV. Yet he never stopped inventing and experimenting. He eventually held some 300 U.S. and foreign patents.
In the 1950s and the ‘60s, Farnsworth became interested in fusion, the process whereby multiple atomic nuclei join together to form a single heavier nucleus. It’s the process that powers the sun and all the stars.
Like many obsessed inventors, he mortgaged his house and borrowed against a life insurance policy to build the first tabletop fusion reactor, what’s also known as a fusor. He died in 1971 before he could get his fusion reactor to work – that is, produce more energy than what was put into it.
Many scientists around the world, of course, also were working on creating a useful fusion reactor. Rather than generate power, however, one of the first functional manmade fusion reactions took the shape of a very large explosion. The United States tested the first hydrogen fusion bomb in the South Pacific in 1952. It was a 10.4 megaton blast and the United States let it rip on the island of Elugelab, part of the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands. Don’t look for Elugelab on a map. It vanished in a matter of seconds.
Destructive? To be sure. But if fusion power could be harnessed, it would end dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.
Fusion reactions are relative easy to produce, but creating fusion that produces more energy than what is put in has been elusive to date.
In the early 1950s, many scientists thought fusion was close at hand. All they had to do was build the right type of machine and they would have a self-sustaining fusion reaction.
In the late ‘50s, John Cockcroft, a British physicist and Nobel Prize winner, announced that a British fusion reactor named ZETA would lead to a workable fusion reactor within 20 years. As with every new reactor since, scientists were sure that within a short time they would have a commercial reactor producing more energy than what was put into it.
For Fusion Fanatics
Yet by the end of the ‘60s, most of their hopes had been dashed. They weren’t seeing the results they expected.
A design out of Russia known as Tokamaks revived hopes. The design looked like a giant doughnut and used magnetic confinement to produce fusion power. Other experiments elsewhere included taking lasers and compressing a small pellet with fusion fuel, Hydrogen 3, which in theory would ignite and produce a fusion reaction with more energy than what was put in. As with the previous designs, these too have not achieved the goal of putting out more energy than what is used, even though they have achieved fusion. These reactors have only gotten bigger and more costly than Farnsworth’s tabletop contraption.
The most recent project, the ITER in the south of France, will be the largest fusion reactor ever built. It is a multinational project funded by several nations including those of the European Union, as well as China, Russia and India. When construction is finished in 2017 or thereabouts, it will cost as much as $8 billion. As with previous designs, many scientists believe fusion is just a few decades around the corner.
Large government programs are not the only ones working on fusion. In recent years, many amateur hobbyists have been tinkering on fusors. For less than $1,000, an amateur with some mechanical background can build one.
Several high school students in the past two decades have built their own fusor with the help of fellow hobbyists. Other fusor-focused students have won scholarships from Intel. There is even a private company that makes neutron generator fusors, used in universities and other research facilities.
One would think that with the right amount of incentive, private inventors could crack the fusion puzzle. And that’s where contests may come into play. Much like contests spurred advancements in aviation in the early 20th century – Charles Lindburgh’s first trans-Atlantic flight was part of a contest – competitions could ignited a race to perfect fusion power.
Organizers of the X Prize offered $10 million to the first privately funded team to launch a human into space. In 2004, a group funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen won the prize. The prize idea has since been used to motivate other scientific endeavors, most recently as a way to help clean oil from the Gulf of Mexico.
The prize model could be adapted for widespread fusion research. A large prize for the first person to produce a fusion reaction that puts out more energy than what is put into it could motivate universities, corporations and individuals to come up with something that would work. It really would not matter what their formal education or background is. What would matter are results.
If Farnsworth had only lived another decade, we might not be having this discussion and our world would be powered by fusion. Maybe somewhere – perhaps a farm in Idaho – someone is working on fusion power. And with a little incentive, they could make it a reality.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the October 2010 print edition.
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