Searching for Infinite Energy, ‘Fusioneers’ Tinker With the Stars

Toiling in his lab, Philo T. Farnsworth was working on something that would change the world forever. His fusion reactor looked like something from the TV show Lost in Space—futuristic technology as imagined in the 1950s. In its finished form, his invention would be capable of generating an infinite supply of energy.

Tubes and metal legs connected to an orb with a fine glass cover over it. Inside, something magical would happen. Rays of purple light zap in from the sides, slowly forming into a radiating ball of light suspended in the air. He was creating a star

After inventing the television in the 1920s, Farnsworth was ready to change the face of society once again. Just as he managed to get his machine to achieve the impossible, his son peeked into the bizarre laboratory. Suddenly a thought struck him, causing Farnsworth to dismantle his machine. He placed it onto a shelf where it could not be reached and never worked on it again.

Farnsworth had a struggle with himself “for several years over what was going to happen to culture and society if we suddenly had virtually unlimited resources of energy at our disposal,” said Paul Schatzkin, 60, who relayed the story of Farnsworth.

Schatzkin is the author of a Farnsworth biography. He is also the founder of the Open Source Fusor Research Consortium website that functions as an online forum for individuals who have set out to try and finish the fusion technology that Farnsworth started.

Forum contributors refer to themselves as “fusioneers.” They are ranked on the Open Source Fusor Research Consortium, starting with the “scroungers” who are searching for the necessary materials, to the “neutron club” who have succeeded in creating fusion. There are about 40 people throughout the world who have created fusion.

Some of the fusioneers are over 60, yet a growing number are still teenagers. They create what Schatzkin refers to as “a star in a jar.”

Fusion Vs. Fission

Although fusion works with nuclear energy, it is the exact opposite of fission energy that is currently in use. While fission works by splitting heavy uranium or plutonium atoms, fusion works by fusing two extremely light hydrogen atoms into a helium atom.

The way both technologies generate energy is like night and day. Fusion reactors generate energy by heating water and using the steam to spin turbines. “Farnsworth imagined that his process, because the particles that are spun off within the reaction, working against the walls of the chamber would actually generate electricity directly,” Schatzkin said.

“You have this stainless steel sphere, and you have this reaction going on inside it, and there is electricity pouring out of it. That’s what these folks are chasing,” he said.

The only problem is that nobody has been able to achieve sustained fusion that can generate more energy than it uses. The challenge: How do you contain a star?

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(Image courtesy of Richard Hull)