Many might be alarmed to learn of a homemade nuclear reactor being built next door. But what if this form of extreme DIY could help solve the world's energy crisis?
By day, Mark Suppes is a web developer for fashion giant Gucci. By night, he cycles to a New York warehouse and tinkers with his own nuclear fusion reactor.
The warehouse is a non-descript building on a tree-lined Brooklyn street, across the road from blocks of apartments, with a grocery store on one corner. But in reality, it is a lab.
In a hired workshop on the third floor, a high-pitched buzz emanates from a corner dotted with metal scraps and ominous-looking machinery, as Mr Suppes fires up his device and searches for the answer to a question that has eluded some of the finest scientific minds on the planet.
In nuclear fusion, atoms are forcibly joined, releasing energy. It is, say scientists, the "holy grail" of energy production - completely clean and cheap.
The problem is, no-one has found a way of making fusion reactors produce more energy than they consume to run.'I was inspired'
Mr Suppes, 32, is part of a growing community of "fusioneers" - amateur science junkies who are building homemade fusion reactors, for fun and with an eye to being part of the solution to that problem.
He is the 38th independent amateur physicist in the world to achieve nuclear fusion from a homemade reactor, according to community site Fusor.net. Others on the list include a 15-year-old from Michigan and a doctoral student in Ohio.
"I was inspired because I believed I was looking at a technology that could actually work to solve our energy problems, and I believed it was something that I could at least begin to build," Mr Suppes told the BBC.
While they might un-nerve the neighbours, fusion reactors of this kind are perfectly legal in the US.
"As long as they [private citizens] obtain that material [the components of the reactor] legally, they could do whatever they want," says Anne Stark, senior public information officer for California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
During fusion, energy is released as atomic nuclei are forced together at high temperatures and pressures to form larger nuclei.
Scientists say devices like Mr Suppes' pose no real threat to neighbouring communities or the environment because they contain no nuclear materials, such as uranium or plutonium.
"There is no chance of any kind of accident with fusion," says Neil Calder, communications chief for Iter, a multi-national project begun in 1985 with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of fusion power.
"There's no CO2 pollution, there's no greenhouse gases, you can't use it for proliferation [the spread of nuclear weapons] - it has so many advantages," he said.
'Mechanics to janitors'
Government-led efforts to produce power from fusion have been going on around the world for 50 years.
Iter - funded by the EU, US, Japan, Russia, India, China, and South Korea - is working on a multi-billion dollar, advanced reactor, due to be built in the south of France by 2019.
"We have people in the whole gamut, from physicists to electronics people to car mechanics to even one janitor - and all these people share a common bond to do nuclear fusion in their home," said Richard Hull, founder of Fusor.net.
Some experts are sceptical that all these people are producing fusion reactions, but when he demonstrates his device, Mr Suppes says a bubble meter placed next to the reactor indicates that a fast neutron, a by-product of fusion, has been produced.
The amateur scientist began building his reactor two years ago, purchasing parts on eBay with $35,000 of his own money and about $4,000 he raised on a website that connects artists and inventors with private investors.
"Real researchers that are working at Los Alamos [US Department of Energy National Laboratory] and are working at Lawrence Livermore are following this and commenting on it, even though it's not an officially sanctioned project," he says.Tricky situation
Mr Suppes sees his work in nuclear fusion as more than just a hobby, and he intends to try to build one of the world's first break-even reactors - a facility producing as much energy as it uses to operate.
"He now has to go out and do what everybody else has to do, which is to convince people to invest in his project - whether its government funding or private funding to carry him through," said Mr Calder.
Mr Suppes is hoping to build a break-even reactor from plans created by the late Robert Bussard, a nuclear physicist who drew up plans for a fusion reactor that could convert hydrogen and boron into electricity.
Work on a scaled up version of a Bussard reactor, funded by the US Navy, has already been taking place in California.
But Mr Suppes believes he will be able to raise the millions of dollars it takes to build a Bussard reactor because he feels someone with enough money "will feel they cannot pass up the opportunity" to find out if it will work.
Iter said it would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the notion that an amateur could make a difference.
"I won't say something that puts these guys down, but it's a tricky situation because there is a great deal of money and time and a lot of very experienced scientists working on fusion at the moment," said Mr Calder.
"But that does not eliminate other ideas coming from a different group of people."
What neighbours say
For Mr Suppes, convincing the experts is one thing. Convincing the locals is another problem entirely.
"A homemade nuclear fusion reactor being built in Brooklyn - I would have thought there would be some sort of rules and laws about messing around with nuclear fusion in your apartment," said Brooklyn resident Stephen Davis. "I'm not sure I'd like that living right next to me."
"The fact that he's trying to form a new kind of energy is all well and good," said another local, Christopher Wright. "But without the proper scientific work behind it, I don't know if it's too good of an idea."
But others had a more positive outlook on Mr Suppes' reactor.
"I think it's a good idea. If a guy can make an invention like that, it should definitely be spread around so we don't need to depend on oil," Brooklynite Chris Stephens told the BBC.
"We need to do something that's new and more creative for society" (BBC, 2010).
Title: Swedish Man Arrested For Building A Nuclear Reactor In His Kitchen
Date: August 10, 2011
Source: Oil Price
Abstract: Apparently a Swedish man has been reprimanded for attempting to build a homemade nuclear reactor.
31-year-old Richard Handl foiled his own plans to construct a homemade nuclear reactor when he called the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority in July to ask if he was even allowed to build it. His seemingly harmless attempt to inquire as to the legalities of his research led to Swedish authorities storming Handl’s home in the small coastal town of Angelholm.
"We realized he probably had radioactive material at his home which you are not allowed to have without a permit, which was why the authorities decided to inspect his home," said Swedish Radiation Safety Authority research director Leif Moberj.
The extensive inspection of Handl’s home uncovered radioactive material, including small amounts of Americium-241, an isotope commonly found in home smoke detectors. It is illegal to remove Americium-241 from smoke detectors as it can be very harmful if inhaled or swallowed. However, tests revealed that the amounts found in Handl’s home were not enough to warrant any danger to neighbors. The agency has yet to reveal what other types of radioactive materials were found.
Handl was quoted in the Helsingborgs Dagblad newspaper saying that he owns his own Geiger counter and had noticed no problems with radiation while conducting his experiments. His plan for a homemade reactor was never completed, although he reportedly had purchased most of what was needed to build one. All of his equipment has been confiscated by Swedish authorities. Handle told the newspaper that in the future he plans to keep his work strictly theoretical to avoid such investigations.
Moberj added that the incident was “extremely unusual. I haven’t heard of any similar things ever,” he said.
While Richard Handl’s plan to build his own small-scale nuclear reactor was foiled, I must applaud his candor. The garage scientists of the world are the unsung heroes of the energy arena. Tinkering in their workshops to develop exotic new ways to generate energy is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that will transform the energy sector and help truly achieve energy independence. While well-funded universities and billion dollar companies certainly pump out some amazing energy breakthroughs, homebound researchers aren’t limited by grant guidelines or third-party funding specifications, and are truly free to explore the boundaries of science. Kudos to all you garage scientists out there; but in your quest for the next big energy breakthrough, just be sure you’re not risking your health or the health of others with, say, illegal radioactive materials (Oil Price, 2011).
Date: February 8, 2011
Abstract: Back in the days when we thought a "dirty bomb" might be a raunchy joke gone awry, young David Hahn was gathering all the radioactive material he could get his hands on. But he came in peace.
Hahn is the man who earned the sobriquet "The Radioactive Boy Scout" in 1995 when he came very close to building a breeder nuclear reactor in his backyard in suburban Detroit. I am serious as a meltdown.I heard about his tale while I spent some time with some of New York's finest - the anti-terrorism unit. In the course of a whirlwind day that involved time in a chopper, a boat, an SUV and the 4 train, I picked up on the legend of the really rad Boy Scout from my home state.
I kept asking if anyone could or would have the time, energy, money and knowledge to gather up some readily available radiological materials, duct tape it to some dynamite, and make himself or herself the kind of dirty bomb that the post-9/11 world has come to fear and loathe.
And finally one of the anti-terror cops mentioned David Hahn's story. A little bit of digging and we found David more than willing to tell his tale. We were booked to DTW faster than the half-life of Seaborgium (look it up!).
David is now in his mid-30s and going to college to become a practitioner of the science of public relations. Before he landed back in Michigan, he had two stints in the service: one tour as a Marine and one as a Navy enlisted man. In that latter role, he became the helmsman of the USS Enterprise -- a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier -- which he says is a bear to parallel park.
That job presented a ironic turn for the kid who grew up devouring a 1960s vintage Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments - which offered all kinds of interesting, sometimes dangerous, ways for kids to get a taste of the what it is like to be a scientist.
David loved the story of Pierre and Marie Curie's discovery of Radium. In fact, he could not stop thinking about the glowing material depicted in the drawing on that page in the book. He figured it was the best way to solve the energy crisis. With his father's encouragement, he decided to become an Eagle Scout (did you know 11 of the 12 Apollo moonwalkers were scouts? First man on the moon Neil Armstrong and moonwalker Charles Duke were the two Eagle Scouts of the group).*Naturally, the atomic energy merit badge interested him the most. The book required the Eagle wannabe to make a model of a nuclear reactor out of straws and matches and stuff. David decided he would rather make the real thing -- and then set about to gather up as much hot stuff as he could lay his hands on.
He got Thorium from lantern mantles, Americium from smoke detectors and Radium from old clock dials. He had pretty much all he needed to make a small breeder reactor, which can generate more fissile material than it consumes. It sounds like a cool trick but as you can imagine these things have a way of going south ... to China.
David spent sometimes eight or 10 hours a day in his backyard shed trying to fashion himself a breeder reactor. All he wanted to do was transform one element to the next. He thinks he may have done that but cannot be sure.
Before things got even weirder in his backyard, David got cold feet, gathered up his stuff, put it in the trunk of a car and proceeded to get pulled over by the fuzz. Game over. A moon-suited team was there in a jiffy -- and his shed, the hot stuff and much of the dirt in his backyard made its way to a radioactive waste dump in Utah.
David's reactor-building days were done. But since he never broke the law -- or meant any harm, he never did any time in the can. A bomb? He said he never thought for a moment about building a bomb!
But here is the bottom line -- and why he was a nice addition to our story: He says it was awfully darn hard to gather up all the smoke detectors, Coleman lantern mantles and old clocks.
Matter of fact, they say you would need about 2 million smoke detectors to make a single dirty bomb of any consequence.
What we should be worried about is the radioactive material that sits in machines inside hospitals. There is enough Cesium in one blood irradiator to make many dozens of dirty bombs. So let's hope they are battening the hatches inside hospitals these days.
We don't want anyone getting a dirty bomb merit badge (PBS, 2011).