Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission

This week’s film begins as abruptly as the Atomic Age itself, though it wasn’t produced by General Electric until 1952. No time is wasted in getting to the point of the thing, which is to explain the frightening force of nuclear physics clearly and simply through friendly animations.

[Dr. Atom] from the Bohr Modeling Agency describes what’s going on in his head—the elementary physics of protons, neutrons, and electrons. He explains that atoms can be categorized into families, with uranium weighing in as the heaviest element at the time. While most atoms are stable, some, like radium, are radioactive. This evidently means it stays up all night doing the Charleston and throwing off neutrons and protons in the process of jumping between atomic families. [Dr. Atom] calls this behavior natural transmutation.

Artificial transmutation became a thing in the 1930s after scientists converted nitrogen into oxygen. After a couple of celebratory beers, they decided to fire a neutron at a uranium nucleus just to see what happened. The result is known as nuclear fission. This experiment revealed more about the binding force present in nuclei and the chain reaction of atomic explosions that takes place. It seemed only natural to weaponize this technology. But under the right conditions, a reactor pile made from graphite blocks interspersed with U-235 and -238 rods is a powerful and effective source of energy. Furthermore, radioactive isotopes have advanced the fields of agriculture, industry, medicine, and biochemistry.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission”

High Voltage Hacks: Transmute the elements in your garage

The magnum opus of alchemy was the Philosopher’s stone, a substance that was able to turn common metals into gold. Unlike alchemists, [Carl Willis] might not be poisoning himself in a multitude of ways, but he did build a Farnsworth fusor that’s capable of turning Hydrogen into Helium.

To fuse Hydrogen in his device, [Carl] first evacuates a vacuum chamber. Deuterium (Hydrogen with an added neutron) is injected into the chamber, and a spherical cathode made of Tungsten is charged to 75 kV. The deuterium gas is heated and confined by the cathode and fuses into Helum. The electrostatic confinement of the plasma isn’t very much different from some old CRT tubes. This isn’t a coincidence – both the fusor and CRTs were invented by the same man.

While no fusion experiments – including some billion dollar experiments – have ever produced a net energy gain, this doesn’t mean it’s not an impressive engineering feat. If you’d like to try your hand at building your own fusor, drop by the surprisingly active research forum. There’s a lot of really good projects to look through over there.