Here Be Monsters Podcast

The Podcast About the Unknown

HBM104: Scrapheap Reactor

Max Turnquist advises against wearing shorts while dumpster diving for used lab equipment. Almost every day, Max visits a university parking garage, where there are several small mountains of discarded equipment, some of it quite rare.

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Content Note:

-Language

It’s where he found his ion pump, and a lot of his rack-mounted monitoring gear and power supplies.  He’s building a small nuclear fusion reactor from scratch in his bedroom, and he’s doing it on the cheap.

Viable fusion power has long been a dream of scientists.  Once a fusion reaction starts, its only waste products are helium, water, and relatively small amounts of neutron radiation.  The fuel for these reactors is often Deuterium (aka. “heavy hydrogen), a common isotope of hydrogen found naturally in seawater.  Compared to nuclear fission (the nuclear tech we currently use), fusion seems almost too good to be true—nearly free energy with few downsides.

Correction: In the episode, we misstate the natural abundance of Deuterium. The correct abundance is .015%. We regret the error.

Max looks for lab equipment in a pile of discarded electronics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Max looks for lab equipment in a pile of discarded electronics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But there are a number of obstacles in the way.  Getting atoms close enough to fuse takes massive amounts of force and heat.  In the fusion reactors made by nature (stars), fusion happens because of the ridiculous amounts of gravity that create the high heat needed for this reaction.  But here on earth, where sun-like gravity isn’t an option, scientists like Max have to rely on trickier methods.

Max thinks that physicists are intuitive scientists.  They observe something many times and gain an inherent knowledge of the universe.  He says that the biggest laws that govern the physics are often quite simple, elegant.  Max found himself drawn to one of the archimedean solids, and followed his hunch.

His proof of concept reactor has a metal cage in the shape of a truncated icosahedron, a couple inches wide. In this shape, Max suspends particles in a cage of other particles.  This shouldn’t be possible, based on Earnshaw’s Theorem, which in layman's terms, means that it’s really hard to keep the particle in the middle from squirting out the sides.  But Max’s shape, along with a constantly changing voltage, suspends things in a Goldilocks-type way. He calls this “stably unstable”.

His first proof of concept worked.  Now he’s on his second. He says he’s almost ready to do a major fusion test, where he’ll drag his 300 pound reactor out to rural Maine,  bury it in the ground and stand a safe distance away (to avoid the neutron radiation). And if it works, he’ll be on to solving the next problem, which is how to actually harvest the power it generates.  

Max doesn’t think the solution is a single step away.  There are still many hurdles to overcome before fusion replaces the dirty and inefficient power we use today.  And maybe those hurdles are too many, maybe it’s a fool’s errand.  But he’s hopeful that fusion can save at least part of the world.  

Jeff Emtman produced this episode with help from Bethany Denton.

Music: The Black Spot | | | Serocell | | | Lucky Dragons

A couple more links for you:

The prototype nuclear reactor that Max built has a name, “Proof of Concept 2”, and a mascot, the octopus.

The prototype nuclear reactor that Max built has a name, “Proof of Concept 2”, and a mascot, the octopus.

HBM050: The Scientist is not the Angel of Death

What's a life worth? About $25, before shipping.  At least, that's the case if you want a high-quality inbred lab mouse, like the C57BL/6J (in the biz, they just call them "black mice"). 

In this episode of Here Be Monsters, Jeff Emtman joins "The Scientist," an unnamed cancer researcher, for an after-hours trip to his lab, where they visit the hundreds of lab mice that he tends to.  The Scientist's job is to inject his mice with cancer cells, then attempt to cure them using experimental treatments.  After the cancers become too large, he kills the mice. 

Jeff Emtman wearing his protective garb prior to entering The Scientist's lab. 

Jeff Emtman wearing his protective garb prior to entering The Scientist's lab. 

The Scientist points to the spot where he injects cancer cells into lab mice. 

Trailer for "Fantastic Planet" (1973). AKA "La Planète sauvage".

The Scientist says that he is not a satanist, despite the satanic art that covers much of his body.   Instead, he considers himself a utilitarian, someone who believes that sacrifices must be made to promote the most good for the most beings (human or otherwise).  And "sacrifice" is actually the technical term he and others use for killing the mice.  The Scientist admits that it is a euphemistic word, but defends it because "from their sacrifice, you gain knowledge."

In his lab, the death comes via carbon dioxide, which is often thought to be the most painless option (though it has critics).  Other labs use cervical dislocation--though generally there's a requirement that the animal must be unconscious first.  

After the lab, Jeff and The Scientist sit out on a porch drinking beer, discussing the path to becoming a scientist, The Scientist's admiration of Neil Degrasse Tyson, and the beautiful French animated film, Fantastic Planet.

Music: Lucky Dragons ||| The Black Spot ||| Flowers