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12-Year-Old Claims to Have Achieved Nuclear Fusion at Home (2018) (fusor.net)
217 points by richardhod 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

This looks to be a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusor and is a very common hobby fusion project. A very powerful electric field drives the fusion. No positive energy output from this style of device has ever been reported.

It is “common” (as in not unique), but assembling a fusor and getting actual neutrons from it is still a very big deal, especially for a 12 years old. I am a nuclear engineering enthusiast at 35, I know a lot about these devices, but I doubt I could build a fusor on my own at home. It is a big engineering project.

Note that a lot of "fusors" are actually "demo fusors", i.e. they run at too low energy to produce detectable fusion even if you did fuel them with deuterium. A "demo fusor" just produces plasma that looks similar without doing real fusion.

This article is about the real thing, which is substantially more difficult to build.

The key is - does it make neutrons or not?

If it does, it's fusing. If not, it isn't.

Yeah the age is probably the news here. I remember older teens (HS junior) doing the same.. but 12 .. that's young. Kudos to him.

Hopefully mother nature decided he would be the chosen one to make fusion reactor net positive

Then again: Why would he?; There are are thousands of very smart people working on this. While this is an excellent demonstration of his ability, I doubt he could actually outbid professional researchers.

A lot of science has been dumb luck and doing some random thing at the right time.

I mean I hope for all of us this is one of those cases.

It was just a kind comment to applaud his ingenuity at such a young age. It wasn't meant to be interpreted as a factual statement.

Nothing serious man, part of me just want fusion energy to exist (although humanity will probably abuse it ..)

Humanity already knows how to abuse fusion energy.

I tend to say that we're not using it enough :D

And to clarify, no net energy is expected from such a device.

There’s really no reason positive energy output should be impossible though? I guess it’s just a really inefficient design?

It is impossible: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusor#Radiation The issue is bremsstrahlung radiation. I only have high-school physics education, but AFAIU basically because the charged particles are constantly turning inward, the constant negative acceleration radiates energy away. The faster the particles move in the device, the harder the deceleration, the more energy they give up relative to the input energy. These losses overcome the system before the break-even point. The same process limits the energies that can be achieved in non-linear particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider; it's why the accelerator ring diameter has to grow to achieve higher particle energies. The LHC has a circumference of 27 kilometers. Fusors are... slightly smaller. You don't really need to do the math or understand the physics to appreciate that Fusors are a dead-end.

It's worth reading the whole article. The Fusor design has a long and fascinating history. One of the original inventors, Farnsworth, invented television.

Your highschool physics education was way better than mine.

> bremsstrahlung radiation

Oh that familiar rascal... Always getting the better of positive energy output.

My understanding is that grid collisions, and a region of cool gas that forms in the center are the main limiting factors in this design. Bremsstrahlung is there, but is it the main source of loss?

"...it's why the accelerator ring diameter has to grow to achieve higher particle energies. The LHC has a circumference of 27 kilometers."

Please humor me. Does this mean that if the LHC had x diameter, it would perform the same if it was 1km in circumference?

Bad choice of phrasing on my part as diameter is ambiguous. Also I could only find a reference for the circumference and was too lazy to derive the diameter from the circumference to avoid the ambiguity by making it clear which diameter I was referring to. (EDIT: Diameter is ~8.6km: `echo "pi=4*a(1);27/pi" | bc -l`.)

It's not the diameter of the tube but the diameter of the circular path the particles follow through the ring. The greater the circumference the less the relative angular acceleration (i.e. shallower curvature). To accelerate particles even faster without giving up most of the extra input energy to bremsstrahlung radiation you must increase the circumference to maintain the same relative angular acceleration.

It's Friday and math[1] and physics is not something I can do off the top of my head so at this point it's better if someone else step in. I won't be able to describe it correctly without relearning half of this stuff myself.

[1] I mean... the algebra and geometry is rather trivial but it'll take some effort for me to correct and make more precise the terminology and formulas.

> Also I could only find a reference for the circumference and was too lazy to derive the diameter from the circumference to avoid the ambiguity by making it clear which diameter I was referring to. (EDIT: Diameter is ~8.6km: `echo "pi=4*a(1);27/pi" | bc -l`.)

...is the LHC track a circle?

Not a perfect circle. It consists of multiple arc segments and the detectors which are straight. See also https://home.cern/science/accelerators/large-hadron-collider

It'e been proven that this particular design can't achieve net power, but other designs probably can. Scientists are especially confident about the tokamak, for example. (And of course, thermonuclear bombs definitely achieve net power.)

Thermonuclear bombs work on nuclear fission not fusion, just to clear up any confusion. Nuclear power plants also achieve power from fission, which is the breaking of nuclear bonds.

No, the defining characteristic of thermonuclear bomb is a second stage fusion device. The first stage fission device sets off the second stage.


Edit: just acknowledging the funny set of identical replies!

Oh! My bad =) I should have looked it up first. I always thought it was take the unstable uranium isotope and surround it with a horrible amount of explosive material which was set at a controlled time to pressure the uranium into a cascading reaction. Turns out, I'm running on the 1940's Popeye cartoon explanation =[

You're right but for the name. That's how the fission nuclear bomb works. Then you combine it with a heavy hydrogen fusion stage to get a thermonuclear ('hydrogen') bomb.

No, the person you're replying to is right, the bulk of the energy is from fission. What the fusion does is serve essentially as a "tamper" - it's in a ring around the fissile core and as it explodes it compresses the fissile core. Since the fission rate increases exponentially this tamping dramatically increases the overall energy yield.

No, that is NOT what the 'tamper' is or does. See my (or various other) nearby comments where I describe the actual process, or just read the Wiki article linked in another comment...

I think we all agree that fission AND fusion are involved in a thermonuclear weapon.

No, thermonuclear bombs [1] are fusionbombs. Nuclear bombs can be of both types but the term thermonuclear specifically means (partly) fusion-powered bombs. These bombs always use a fission reaction as a starter for the fusion reaction, depending on the type of bomb the power output can be anywhere from mostly fusion to largely fission.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_weapon

No, thermonuclear bombs actually work on nuclear fusion (started by a smaller fission bomb).

Well, GP didn't mean this, but most thermonuclear bombs derive a large amount of their yield from fission of a U238 "tamper" and "sparkplug", driving by neutrons from D-T fusion.

Technically, there is no pure fusion bomb so I guess in a way you could say everything is fission powered, but that's like saying your gasoline car is battery powered because that's what started the engine.

Nope! Essentially all modern large thermonuclear devices are fission-fusion-fission devices, where the last fission stage (again, driven by fusion neutrons) produces the majority of the yield. You can omit that stage, by using a non-fissile material, for easier testing (...do you really want to test a 100MT device?...) with less fallout, but in actual use, they would all have fissile tampers.

Except that in a thermonuclear bomb, fission also occurs at the end as well as the start... The initial fission explosion starts off a fusion reaction, and then neutrons from the fusion process carry on to start another fission reaction, usually of the LEU 'tamper' encasing the bomb. In fact, a large proportion of the energy output is from this third stage fission reaction.

Well, you are free to provide a better design. Problems are many, mostly the very high temperature and pressure needed to achieve fusion ... no material can stand that so you need to have your fusion happening floating which needs energy etc.

Doesn’t that answer your own question?

Apparently one of the problems with this device is that much of the energy is lost when the ions strike the inner electrodes and that got me thinking. What if there were a way to construct a sort of thin inert buffer on the electrodes with say a noble gas, to facilitate ion collisions over ion conduction?

Worth mentioning there are a number of hobbyists/enthusiasts doing this, and there's no reason to be skeptical about the result itself. The link in this post is deep in the same site, but http://www.fusor.net/board/index.php is pretty active.

This particular achievement is notable because Jackson Oswalt might have been the youngest person to home-build a fusor, or at least the youngest to have spoken up about it.

Also worth noting that this is a year old. Looks like he's been plugging at it since then:


I worked with a young guy that built one of these in high school. About a year after we parted ways I was just randomly considering how long various things I built would last. Then it occurred to me that the hydrogen atoms that he snapped together and let loose are still likely floating around out there, and could conceivably be in the same configuration a hundred billion years from now.

Don't feel bad -- it's very possible some of the CO2 that you breathe out every day will still be in the same configuration a hundred billion years from now as well.

Nah, CO2 is absorbed by rock weathering and released by vulcanism. There are currently 740 gigatons of CO2 in the atmosphere and 1 of those is absorbed every year by rocks. you should expect that most of the molecules he exhales are going to be gone in just a millennium.

The average human exhales around 2.3 pounds of CO2 per day [0]. That means that in a lifetime (70 years), a human breathes out around 59,000 pounds of CO2, which is 608,000 moles of CO2 or 3.7 * 10^29 atoms of CO2 [2].

By your gigaton number then there will be on average less than one atom of his CO2 production in 50,000 years [3].

What happens if we consider total carbon footprint instead? Various sources cite around 20 metric tons per year as the average carbon footprint for someone living in the US. That's about 120 times higher than the amount exhaled, and since log(a*b) = log(a) + log(b) we can just add 3540 years [4] to our above calculation ~= 54,000 years.

So above a millennium, but much less than a billion years.

[0] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2009/08/are-you-heating-...

[1] https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=59000+pounds+%2F+mass+...

[2] https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=608,000+moles+to+atoms

[3] https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=-log_(739%2F740)(3.661...

[4] https://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=-log_(739%2F740)(120)

If those darn green plants don’t wreck all my hard metabolic work.

How much of this is the kid and how much is the parent? Still impressive no matter what, but I do wonder…

You will continue to be amazed, kids nowadays have grown up with instant access to an incomprehensible wealth of knowledge via the internet.

Yup. I was at a ML meetup and one of the kids who was only 12 or so knew advanced level coding and Tensorflow. Another one was a 16 year old who had been coding C++ for more than half a decade. They both credit a lot of it to the internet and the ease of learning which books to acquire.

In chess, there have now been four 12 year old grandmasters. ('Grandmaster' isn't an easy title to achieve, needing besides incredibly strong play, a high rating and doing very well in 3 tournaments with strong international opposition.) It's because of computers and the internet making every facet of chess learning/study incomparably faster than a few decades ago. And you can get a game in seconds anytime online..

There's no-one from before the chess + computer age on the list of the 36 players who've become Grandmasters before their 15th birthday : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_prodigy#List_of_youngest...

And also regular wealth. Have you seen the photos of it? It looks like a pre-assembled Radio Shack kit. Probably cost thousands of dollars in professionally machined parts.

> He has also repeatedly told my that my high school will be writing me a recommendation letter good enough to get me a 4-year scholarship to the school of my choice. This justified the price of the reactor for my parents.

Just the right amount it seems.

Jackson’s father, Chris Oswalt, had no real understanding of what his son was working on.


And his mother is a CPA working for local Memphis government. When asked about Jackson’s achievements, she just shrugs and laughs. I don’t think this is a case of the ol’ “kid’s science project” for him by his parents.

Considering the kid is on a forum asking questions, its likely not much the parent.


It really is amazing what can be accomplished with intellect, vision, concerted effort, and funding.

Any one of the four lacking would have stopped this project cold. It’s no small feat for a small child, even with a big budget, it’s a good measure of the other 3 traits to take this project on and reach this milestone!

This reminds me of Taylor Wilson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylor_Wilson

In fact, if the claims are true, he will have beaten Wilson's record as youngest person to have produced nuclear fusion using a fusor.

In his write-up, he explicitly calls out Wilson as his inspiration.

Don't you mean Mitch Taylor? Perhaps this kid will get a scholarship to Pacific Tech.

Narrator: He hadn’t. And back at the model home, Michael was dealing with a physics problem of his own.

Meanwhile I just made a NiCr wire glow white with an ATX PSU. The race . is . on.

By coincidence I'm currently reading The Boy Who Played with Fusion https://www.amazon.com/Boy-Who-Played-Fusion/dp/0544705025, which tells the amazing story of Taylor Wilson (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylor_Wilson) who performed this feat when he was 14.

It's mind boggling what dedicated kids can achieve with parental backing and scientist mentors. In Wilson's case places like The Black Hole surplus store (https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/18130) also greatly helped. Sadly such places are getting rarer.

This is pretty inspirational. Im curious how much a setup like this must cost though? Cursory investigations into vaccuum costs seem pretty prohibitively high for a 12 year old, even most middle class parents. Very cool though.

Looks to be around $1.5-3k USD in his setup photos, likely less if he's using some used/surplus equipment, which is quite possible. Stainless fittings and tubing are surprisingly affordable. About $250 for the Deuterium.

Edit: sibling points out it may be $10k. I wonder if that price includes other equipment not shown. If not, apologies for the gross underestimation ($1.5-3k seemed reasonable - most of the equipment pricing can be looked up).

I saw a figure in another article that said $10k had gone into his fusor.

"A demo fusor can and has been made in a bell jar with crude vacuum gear and kluded-up power supply. Most such systems are assembled by younger school age children (mostly boys save for one pair of girls). The demo fusor often serves as a science fair project in the 10th to 12th grades of high school. The better examples have won regional science fairs and a couple of national events! "[0]

[0] http://www.fusor.net/board/viewtopic.php?t=2674

I don't know why you're quoting that. His device is not a demo fusor, it's actually producing real nuclear fusion.

Forum post detailing how he got there:


The fact that he's still alive and kicking undercuts his thesis.


You go, kid! (Applauding)

Fusors are totally different from the concept of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) right?

For how long, on what scale, and how much energy it can create? A lot of problems

Maybe now he can get into his target high school.

This is certainly a pretty big deal for a 12 year old. But also, it’s a hobby project that’s been around for decades.

Fusion is something we hear about in the media as being something very hard to achieve. It’s not. Achieving fusion beyond breakeven - so we can generate power from it - now that’s a very hard problem. It takes the combined effort of seven countries and billions of dollars.

Achieving fusion beyond breakeven isn’t super hard either. It’s far from trivial, but it was figured out almost seventy years ago and produced on an industrial scale. The hard part is doing it both breakeven and in a way that lets you send the power to a city without destroying that city.

it was figured out almost seventy years ago

I've heard of the "young Earth" movement, but "young Sun" is a new one.

What, you didn’t learn about Eisenhower building the Sun in history class?

I'll be ok with it just powering my house

I'd go so far as to say that net positive energy from fusion is a solved problem, because the theoretical portion has been done for decades. The only limitation is refusal to throw money at it, space race or Manhattan Project style, to iron out the engineering problems.



This sort of sexist joke about traditional gender roles is mildly offensive in 2019 and, in any event, not very funny or interesting

This really isn’t a joke to anyone who has went through an emotionally abusive relationship that resulted in their creativity and will to experiment be destroyed at the hands of someone else. Anyone downvoting this clearly hasn’t had to experience it.

And also a non-negligible probability that people have a shared experience of and may want to objectively consider avoiding it?

Theres nothing sexist about that joke, mild or otherwise.

This is why Nikola Tesla was celibate.

or husband

When did HN become Reddit?

A long long time ago, check out the new ‘more’ button

Truer words cannot be said

This is a prime example of a "too good to check" story.

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