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Every Friday, twenty students of American high school meet in their particular science club for experiments with a homemade nuclear fusion reactor
The basement of Carl Greninger’s house in Federal Way, Washington may seem straight out of a science fiction movie or part of a government research facility. However, what lies beneath the home of this Microsoft engineer is a homemade nuclear fusion reactor and the hub of an extreme science club for teens that meets every Friday to bring the research and learning to a new level.
Six years ago, concerned about the state of science institutes, Greninger began looking for a solution to counter the apathy of a generation of students more concerned about video games, television and online social networks, who in his view, the system had failed.
“I started thinking about my student years when physics and nuclear research were not considered evil, but were accepted by a whole younger generation who waited impatiently to follow in those steps. Although the ‘affair’ we had with the atom was tainted when we discovered that the first atomic reactors were not as safe as we thought, that was the kind of passion that young people wanted to experience” Greninger explained to Teknautas.
Then he decided that he would build a real atomic reactor where Federal Way teens could experiment with nuclear fusion and others could catch his passion for science. It would be something radical and “a little scary” but this engineer believed that anything below that would not get the interest of young people. “It had to be an experience of extreme science” he explained.
The reactor would not be fission, but fusion. This means that it wouldn’t work with uranium, but with materials such as deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen with good safety standards. “Also I decided that I would design it so that the radiation could not pierce the shield and so to disconnect it turns it off completely” explains Greninger.
The Microsoft employee began to work. Working closely with his wife, he began to devour dozens of pages on the web fusor.net and found that some schools already had focused on research into nuclear fusion. He ordered books from Amazon and researched on the website of Washington State Department of Health to find the rules and laws to be followed in the construction of this reactor, which was allowed by the US government because it did not use fission.
Then he consulted his brother, a nuclear engineer with decades of experience, and designed the “shield” that would surround the reactor when it was in operation. He also recruited a first group of students who would be part of the whole process of construction and the first members of that club which was named Northwest Nuclear Consortium.
“Among other things I ordered special plates of cadmium from Saru in India, and also high voltage capacitors that were built in China. I got a vacuum system that was part of the Columbia space shuttle tests: it had been rusting away in Cape Canaveral for the last twelve years and still had the NASA sticker on it” he says.
He was convinced he had to make the project both a mystery and puzzle, and a journey, and not get stuck only on the idea of the reactor. His basement was to become a sort of headquarters, so that together they designed and decorated an attached laboratory facility that had a secret door into the room with the nuclear device. They also installed a camera system to monitor all activities and to record information videos. In the end, according to the students, the result resembled the laboratories of the film ‘Iron Man’.
The first fusion
I arrive on the appointed day, which Greninger and the first group of students who had formed the club had anticipated with excitement from the start of building the reactor. It would work at last. Everyone stood open-mouthed when, after it started, they could see a ball of plasma, with a temperature highter than the sun’s surface. Extreme Science club had just been officially inaugurated: we were witnessing a nuclear fusion reactor.
It was soon unveiled and they were invited to present the project at the 2011 Microsoft Science Fair at the company campus in Redmond. At first there were only a dozen people in the audience, but when the audience realized that this was not a lecture, but that they would run a homemade reactor, they took put the phones, began to take pictures and a crowd gathered.
A few months later in 2012, with five new members of the institute at Todd Beamer High School, they made a presentation at the fair ‘Imagine the Science of the Future’, organized by Washington State University. Its theme was “to improve the fusion process” by altering the trajectory of ions with neodymium magnets.
It was their first competition, but that handful of teenage students took first prize. It would not be the last. During these five years they have earned more than $800,000 (about 703,000 euros) in grants and over fifty first prizes in various science fairs. They have sent 4 teams to the Intel’s International Fair and have been second and fourth in the last three years.
The club has moved on and now has five major departments: nuclear physics, mechanical engineering, nuclear chemistry, electronics and information technology, tutored by industry experts who contribute voluntarily to this particular club. The twenty students (which change every year) meet every Friday to work on new projects. They have to have a good grade average, a passion for science and a recommendation from a teacher.
With just fifteen current members, they are working on an oscillator ion, X-ray furnace, a tunnel neutron therapy against cancer and several electronic projects.
“Many of these kids have realized that you can make a difference and contribute to your city, your state and your country.” And that, in his case, a career in the field of science is your way to do it”, concludes the proud Greninger. His club has already transformed the perception of several classes of students who, with this extreme science, have discovered that limits to what they believed possible only existed in order to be smashed.