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Fun with fusion: Freshman's nuclear fusion reactor has USU physics faculty in awe

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 16 2003 12:00 a.m. MDT

Spanish Fork High graduate Craig Wallace shows off his nuclear fusion reactor, based on the plans of Utah's own Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of TV.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

LOGAN — A widespread belief among physicists nowadays is that modern science requires squadrons of scientists and wildly expensive equipment.

Craig Wallace and Philo T. Farnsworth are putting the lie to all that.

Wallace, a baby-faced tennis player fresh out of Spanish Fork High School, had almost the entire physics faculty of Utah State University hovering (and arguing) over an apparatus he had cobbled together from parts salvaged from junk yards and charity drops.

The apparatus is nothing less than the sine qua non of modern science: a nuclear fusion reactor, based on the plans of Utah's own Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television.

The reactor sat on a table with an attached vacuum pump wheezing away. A television monitor showed what was inside: a glowing ball of gas surrounded by a metal helix.

The ball is, literally, a small sun, where an electric field forces deuteron ions (a form of hydrogen) to gather, bang together and occasionally fuse, spitting out a neutron each time fusion occurs.

"Here I am with this thing here," Wallace mused, looking at his surroundings. "Who'da thought?"

Wallace and Farnsworth are much alike. Both are (or were — Farnsworth died in 1971) tinkerers. While Wallace was in grade school, his mother got a flat tire while he was riding with her. He fixed it. For his part, Farnsworth began improvising electric motors at a young age. Both went on to bigger and better things.

"He was never motivated to take science," said Wallace's father, Allen Wallace. "It was really the tinkering that motivated him."

When Craig was a sophomore in high school, browsing the Internet he discovered that Farnsworth had come up with a way to create deuteron ion plasma, a prerequisite to fusion.

While it was not good for production of energy (the source of much embarrassment to the University of Utah in the cold fusion debacle in the late 1980s), Farnsworth's design did emit neutrons, a useful tool for commercial applications and scientific experimentation.

"He (Farnsworth) was after the Holy Grail of excess energy, but everyone agrees that it's mostly useful as a neutron generator," Allen Wallace said.

About 30 such devices exist around the country, owned by such entities as Los Alamos National Laboratories, NASA and universities. ("I bet I'm the only high school student that has one," Craig Wallace said.)

Looking at Farnsworth's plans for the first time, Craig and his father both had the same thought: Now there's a science project.

They set to work. They found a neutron detector in an Idaho Falls scrap metal yard. Craig built a neutron modulator (which slows down the emitted neutrons so they can be detected) out of a few hundred spare CDs. They found a broken turbo molecular pump lying forgotten at Deseret Industries.

Too poor to buy pricey deuterium gas, Craig bought a container of deuterium oxide, or heavy water, for 20 bucks and came up with a way to make it a gas and get rid of the accompanying oxygen by passing it over heated magnesium filings.

Not bad for a backyard amateur who considered himself more mechanic than scientist.

"I teased him that he was now officially a science geek," Allen Wallace said.

One professor Friday stood nervously away from Wallace's reactor — which is notably free from any shielding — but he needn't have worried: Wallace's detector measures 36 neutrons per minute just in background radiation from space, and the device's usual output adds only four neutrons per minute. People in airplanes absorb much more than that.

It took two years of gathering materials and six months of assembly, but the final product actually, incongruously, works.

"(This was) the day I achieved a Poisser plasma reaction," Wallace wrote next to a picture of the glowing ball. "Probably the coolest thing I have ever seen."

Others thought it was cool, too. Wallace began winning contests — local, state, national — culminating in second place in the International Intel Science and Engineering Fair last May in Cleveland. He's now beginning work on a USU physics degree.

"The whole thing combines chemistry, engineering, physics," he said. "Put them all together and you come out with something pretty sweet."

Farnsworth would have been proud.


E-MAIL: aedwards@desnews.com

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