“As an American citizen, I am licensed to obtain, collect, sell and transfer 60 pounds of natural uranium ore per year,” says Richard Hull. He received his first chemistry set in 1957 and as a kid in the ’50s collected the nuclear bomb test ash that fell in rain and landed in the roof drain pipes and bird bath of his family’s home in Richmond. He concentrated this by evaporating the collected rainwater on his stove, with the radioactive ash remaining as residue. “For a nuclear kid it was a wonderful time,” Hull remembers. “Free hot stuff fell from the heavens.”

All photographs by André Chung

At first glance, the outbuilding attached to Richard Hull’s Richmond home looks like any lean-to built by a retiree with time on his hands: a slap-dash affair with wood that appears salvaged from home projects gone wrong.

But instead of storing a lawnmower and old paint cans, the shed holds a monstrous metal lathe, wall-to-wall shelves overflowing with items such as television transformers and extraterrestrial-looking rocks, and “High Voltage” signs dangling from the ceiling like chandeliers. And, way in the back: Hull’s fully operational nuclear fusion reactor.

I’m nervously checking out the 69-year-old Hull’s fusor, rubbernecking with 43 others, including a handful of high school students accompanied by game-but-baffled parents. We are gathered for the annual meeting of HEAS, which stands for the High Energy Amateur Science group and meets in this shed every year on the first Saturday of October for a day of, in Hull’s words, “anything that has to do with bangs, pops and sizzles.”

Fusors, for English majors like myself, use an electric field to accelerate ions, smashing them together with such force that their nuclei fuse, creating a burst of energy. (Nuclear reactors, by contrast, use fission to split atoms to release energy.) Decades of effort to create a practical, cost-efficient fusion reactor have been unsuccessful. That’s a source of frustration among scientists and engineers because fusion generates less radioactive material than fission and offers a potential source of energy that’s cheap, clean and copious. Fusion could replace fossil fuels and potentially slow climate change. In other words, fusion could save the planet.

I was introduced to this remarkable alliance of high-energy hobbyists by another unusual community: collectors with Geiger counters who search flea markets for radioactive antiques such as Fiestaware and glow-in-the-dark clocks. In Richmond, I was captivated, bewildered and, frankly, a little afraid. As we filed out of Hull’s door at day’s end, a man in front of me turned around and said: “Just a tip. Be sure to wash your hands before you eat.”

 


Behind a banner reading “Electricity … Our Modern Miracle” and wearing a T-shirt with a silkscreened meteor crater on the front, Tim Raney demonstrates how to change different forms of energy to electricity. Raney, 57, passed a coil of wire through a magnetic field, creating an electrical current that could be detected on an instrument called a galvanometer. The self-described “bald engineer guy with glasses,” from Chesterfield, Va., says he has been interested in science as long as he can remember. “I was taking clocks apart when I was 5 or 6.”


For his demo, “Fire by Friction,” Kevin Dunn, 57, goes old-school and creates a spark by rubbing two sticks together like they do on “Naked and Afraid.” It’s the only thing I understand all day. Dunn, who lives in Farmville, Va., and teaches chemistry and physical chemistry at Hamden-Sydney College, has two hobbies: high-power rocketry and making soap. In 2010, he published a book called “Scientific Soapmaking: The Chemistry of the Cold Process,” which has received 4.6 stars on Amazon. Says one reviewer, “Scientific Soap making is a book that takes soap very, very seriously.”


Scott Moroch, left, and Jack Rosky, both 17, along with both sets of parents, came from Wayne, N.J., where they have their own fusor built and running at Newark’s New Jersey Institute of Technology. “We didn’t want them blowing up our basement,” says Scott’s mother, Nancy. “It’s better they blow up a university.” She’s only half-joking: The duo moved to their Newark facility after Jack mixed lithium and water and started what he refers to as a “tiny fire” in his parents’ kitchen.


An electrical engineer from Vienna,Va., who built his first Tesla coil at 15, Larry Adams, 78, has been coming to the HEAS gathering for 14 years. He began his career rigging the sound systems in venues such as the Warner Theatre and for performers such as James Brown and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Adams has been building a fusor in a 40-by-40 foot lab in his back yard but still needs to build a vacuum. He will proceed with caution. “I took a discharge from a laser capacitator that felt like a sledgehammer.”


“It’s the kind of nerd intellect that will challenge every fiber of your cerebral cortex to understand,” says Paul Schatzkin of Nashville about high energy gatherings. Schatzkin, 65, is the author of “The Boy Who Invented Television,” a biography of Philo T. Farnsworth. He figures he has been coming to Hull’s gatherings for the past six years and remembers the time a guy brought a Tesla cannon for show and tell. “There’s a chance that you’ll see one of those,” he says of the weapons that fire blasts of electricity. Luckily, I did not. Which made me wonder: Should I have been concerned about being exposed to a fusor? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t seem to think so. “Based on what we know of the activities of this group, they are not using a radioactive material that we regulate, nor are they producing radioactive waste,” said spokeswoman Maureen Conley via email. She added that the fusors run on deuterium, a form of hydrogen, which is not regulated in domestic use. However, when she learns I’ve brought home a vintage Vaseline uranium glass marble as a souvenir, Conley advises me to store it in the deepest recesses of my apartment.


For most of the day, Connor Sheridan Wolfe Givans, 17, has been wearing an old timey duster that, once removed, reveals a T-shirt emblazoned with the Standard Model of particle physics. He flew in alone from Martinsville, Ind., where he lives and where he is in the process of turning his family’s barn into a climate-controlled laboratory. “I’ll be doing everything from radio work, to my fusion stuff, to hopefully some work on rocket engines.” He’s been working on his fusor for four years and has been buying the equipment to make it (items such as neutron detectors and vacuum pumps) on eBay and Craigslist, and at today’s HEAS swap meet. But, he says, “some of the parts used in a fusor run for quite the premium, which has been my only real setback.”


Frank Sanns calls himself a “freelance scientist,” but I don’t know any freelancers who wear Patek Philippe watches and tool around Pittsburgh on a Suzuki Hayabusa, one of the world’s fastest production sportbikes. Sanns, 59, has multiple patents, including one for a process that ages acoustic guitars, making a contemporary instrument sound like, say, a 1930s Martin (worth $200,000). Sanns also acts as a mentor to teens Scott Moroch and Jack Rosky and is helping them design an experiment that will “measure deuterium absorption to find out its affect on overall neutron production.”

Cathy Alter, co-editor of the recently released “Crush,” is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.