The Boy Who Played With Fusion

by Christopher Paul on February 21, 2012

From Popular Science:

Fascinating article of a boy who, at 14, would be one of one a limited few would successfully create nuclear fusion. Beyond that amazing accomplishment, Taylor Wilson has used his fusion reactors to help treat cancer patients and detect bombs at shipyards. And as fascinating as that is, I can’t help but be excited with him as he does something truly remarkable. Read this last passage and tell me you don’t want to read the whole article from the start:

Taylor’s reactor, adorned with yellow radiation-warning signs, dominates the far corner of Phaneuf’s lab. It looks elegant—a gleaming stainless-steel and glass chamber on top of a cylindrical trunk, connected to an array of sensors and feeder tubes. Peering through the small window into the reaction chamber, I can see the golf-ball-size grid of tungsten fingers that will cradle the plasma, the state of matter in which unbound electrons, ions and photons mix freely with atoms and molecules.

“OK, y’all stand back,” Taylor says. We retreat behind a wall of leaden blocks as he shakes the hair out of his eyes and flips a switch. He turns a knob to bring the voltage up and adds in some gas. “This is exactly how me and Bill did it the first time,” he says. “But now we’ve got it running even better.”

Through a video monitor, I watch the tungsten wires beginning to glow, then brightening to a vivid orange. A blue cloud of plasma appears, rising and hovering, ghostlike, in the center of the reaction chamber. “When the wires disappear,” Phaneuf says, “that’s when you know you have a lethal radiation field.”

I watch the monitor while Taylor concentrates on the controls and gauges, especially the neutron detector they’ve dubbed Snoopy. “I’ve got it up to 25,000 volts now,” Taylor says. “I’m going to out-gas it a little and push it up.”

Willis’s power supply crackles. The reactor is entering “star mode.” Rays of plasma dart between gaps in the now-invisible grid as deuterium atoms, accelerated by the tremendous voltages, begin to collide. Brinsmead keeps his eyes glued to the neutron detector. “We’re getting neutrons,” he shouts. “It’s really jamming!”

Taylor cranks it up to 40,000 volts. “Whoa, look at Snoopy now!” Phaneuf says, grinning. Taylor nudges the power up to 50,000 volts, bringing the temperature of the plasma inside the core to an incomprehensible 580 million degrees—some 40 times as hot as the core of the sun. Brinsmead lets out a whoop as the neutron gauge tops out.

“Snoopy’s pegged!” he yells, doing a little dance. On the video screen, purple sparks fly away from the plasma cloud, illuminating the wonder in the faces of Phaneuf and Brinsmead, who stand in a half-orbit around Taylor. In the glow of the boy’s creation, the men suddenly look years younger.

Taylor keeps his thin fingers on the dial as the atoms collide and fuse and throw off their energy, and the men take a step back, shaking their heads and wearing ear-to-ear grins.

“There it is,” Taylor says, his eyes locked on the machine. “The birth of a star.”

Tell me you don’t want to read the whole thing.


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