Never underestimate the skills and determination of American tinkerers!
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Extreme DIY: Building a homemade nuclear reactor in NYC
By day, Mark Suppes is a web developer for fashion giant Gucci. By night, he cycles to a New York warehouse and tinkers with his own nuclear fusion reactor.
The warehouse is a non-descript building on a tree-lined Brooklyn street, across the road from blocks of apartments, with a grocery store on one corner. But in reality, it is a lab.
In a hired workshop on the third floor, a high-pitched buzz emanates from a corner dotted with metal scraps and ominous-looking machinery, as Mr Suppes fires up his device and searches for the answer to a question that has eluded some of the finest scientific minds on the planet.
In nuclear fusion, atoms are forcibly joined, releasing energy. It is, say scientists, the “holy grail” of energy production – completely clean and cheap.
The problem is, no-one has found a way of making fusion reactors produce more energy than they consume to run.
‘I was inspired’
Mr Suppes, 32, is part of a growing community of “fusioneers” – amateur science junkies who are building homemade fusion reactors, for fun and with an eye to being part of the solution to that problem.
He is the 38th independent amateur physicist in the world to achieve nuclear fusion from a homemade reactor, according to community site Fusor.net. Others on the list include a 15-year-old from Michigan and a doctoral student in Ohio.
“I was inspired because I believed I was looking at a technology that could actually work to solve our energy problems, and I believed it was something that I could at least begin to build,” Mr Suppes told the BBC.
While they might un-nerve the neighbours, fusion reactors of this kind are perfectly legal in the US.
“As long as they [private citizens] obtain that material [the components of the reactor] legally, they could do whatever they want,” says Anne Stark, senior public information officer for California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
During fusion, energy is released as atomic nuclei are forced together at high temperatures and pressures to form larger nuclei.
Scientists say devices like Mr Suppes’ pose no real threat to neighbouring communities or the environment because they contain no nuclear materials, such as uranium or plutonium.
“There is no chance of any kind of accident with fusion,” says Neil Calder, communications chief for Iter, a multi-national project begun in 1985 with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of fusion power.
“There’s no CO2 pollution, there’s no greenhouse gases, you can’t use it for proliferation [the spread of nuclear weapons] – it has so many advantages,” he said.