17-Year-Old Chad Ramey Introduces Us to Amateur Nuclear Fusion Subculture

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When we read
about Mark
Suppes, the Brooklyn amateur physicist
who built a nuclear reactor
in a warehouse lab, we got curious: Is building a nuclear fusion
device in your spare time a thing that people actually do?

It turns out
that, not only is this a legitimate hobby, it’s actually a thriving,
supportive subculture. Asylum dove into the “Fusioneer” community
to learn who its members are, how they practice their science and
what they get out of it.

Meet
Chad Ramey

In the seventh
grade, our hobbies included listening to Danzig,
drawing comic books and trying to hit level 99 with every character
in “Final
Fantasy IV
.” When Chad Ramey was in the seventh grade, he began
the process of learning how to build his first nuclear reactor.

Today, Chad
is 17 and attending the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program at Valdosta
State University
, which took an interest in him after his exhibit,
“Furthering the Farnsworth Fusor,”
netted him four awards at the Georgia Science and Engineering Fair
.
Whereas Chad isn’t the youngest person to build his own nuclear
reactor – that’d be Taylor
Wilson
, who started producing neutrons with his reactor at the
age of 14 – he’s on the verge of flipping the switch on what
will be the smallest fusion reactor ever built.

“I was quite
the nerd in middle school,” Chad says. “And I started actually building
last summer. It’s pretty much physically complete now – the
tubes connecting the deuterium to the chamber have to be hooked
up, and then I should be producing neutrons when I get back home
from the Governor’s Honors Program in August.”

The
Fusioneer Community

Fusor.net,
an online forum for amateur Fusioneers, keeps
a list of everyone who’s built a reactor
, and marks their progress.

Right
now, Chad’s listed as part of “The Plasma Club,” for people who’ve
built a demo fusor. The exclusive “Neutron Club,” populated by those
who have successfully created a neutron-producing reactor, boasts
38 successful fusors. Chad hopes to soon join their ranks.

The forum was founded in 1998 by Paul Schatzkin, a historian
who wrote
a book about fusor and television inventor Philo Farnsworth
.

“We’ve had
over 5,000 registered members in that time,” he tells Asylum, “and
pretty much everyone who’s built a reactor has come through the
site.”

While the
reactor built by Suppes in Brooklyn cost a reported $39,000, Chad’s
been able to accomplish his work on the cheap, thanks to the Fusor.net
community.

“I think I
put about $5,000 into it so far,” he says. “Most of my parts are
secondhand. Networking through the guys on the message board, especially
since some of them are professionals in the nuclear field, they
have a lot of contacts throughout the industry … It’s really easy
to get some great deals when you tell these guys that you’re a high
school student interested in nuclear physics.”

So,
What’s the Point?

Nuclear fusion,
at least right now, doesn’t actually provide any energy, so those
who build a home reactor are doing it to show a proof-of-principle,
not to make any significant breakthroughs.

No one who’s built a Farnsworth reactor believes that it’s
going to become the “break-even” device that would allow it to generate
at least as much energy as it requires to be active, which Schatzkin
says has led some of the elder statesmen among the Fusioneers to
become jaded.

“That’s what
makes someone like Chad Ramey so important,” he notes. “People in
his generation don’t know that it can’t be done, so there’s nothing
to stop them from doing it.”

Chad, for
his part, isn’t even thinking in those terms right now. Mostly he’s
interested in learning how to build a device that he’d otherwise
have to wait until after college to work on, as well as seeing a
project that’s been the focus of his life since middle school to
completion.

“It’s taught
me a lot of patience,” he says. “If you go out and say, ‘I’m going
to build a reactor in a couple months,’ everyone on the forum will
say, ‘No, you’re not.’”

Sure, when
it comes to pre-teen productivity and “impressive achievements,”
Chad may have us beat, but then again, he probably can’t draw as
awesome-looking a Wolverine as we can.

Reprinted
with permission from Asylum.com.

July
13, 2010

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