Teen creates nuclear fusion in basement
On the surface, Thiago Olson is like any typical teenager.
He’s on the cross country and track teams at Stoney Creek High School in Rochester Hills, Mich. He’s a good-looking, clean-cut 17-year-old with a 3.75 grade-point average, and he has his eyes fixed on the next big step: college.
But to his friends, Thiago is known as “the mad scientist.”
In the basement of his parents’ Oakland Township, Mich., home, tucked away in an area most aren’t privy to see, Thiago is exhausting his love of physics on a project that has taken him more than two years and 1,000 hours to research and build – a large, intricate machine that, on a small scale, creates nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion – when atoms are combined to create energy – is “kind of like the holy grail of physics,” he said.
On www.fusor.net, the Stoney Creek senior is ranked as the 18th amateur in the world to create nuclear fusion. How does he do it?
Pointing to the steel chamber where all the magic happens, Thiago said on Friday that this piece of the puzzle serves as a vacuum. The air is sucked out and into a filter.
Then, deuterium gas – a form of hydrogen – is injected into the vacuum. About 40,000 volts of electricity are charged into the chamber from a piece of equipment taken from an old mammogram machine. As the machine runs, the atoms in the chamber are attracted to the center and soon – ta da – nuclear fusion.
Thiago said when that happens, a small intense ball of energy forms.
He first achieved fusion in September and has been perfecting the machine he built in his parents’ garage ever since.
This year, Thiago was a semifinalist for the Siemens Foundation’s National Research Competition. He plans to enter the Science and Engineering Fair of Metropolitan Detroit, which is in March, in hopes of qualifying to be in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in New Mexico in May.
Thiago’s mom, Natalice Olson, initially was leery of the project, even though the only real danger from the fusion machine is the high voltage and small amount of X-rays emitted through a glass window in the vacuum chamber – through which Olson videotapes the fusion in action.
But, she wasn’t really surprised, because he was always coming up with lofty ideas.
“Originally, he wanted to build a hyperbolic chamber,” she said, adding that she promptly said no. But, when he came asking about the nuclear fusion machine, she relented.
“I think it was pretty brave that he could think that he was capable to do something so amazing,” she said.
Thiago’s dad, Mark Olson, helped with some of the construction and electrical work. To get all of the necessary parts, Thiago scoured the Internet, buying items on eBay and using his age to persuade manufacturers to give him discounts. The design of the model came from his own ideas and some suggestions from other science lovers he met online.
Someday, he hopes to work for the federal government – just like his grandfather, Clarence Olson, who designed tanks for the Department of Defense after World War II. Thiago, who is modest and humble about his accomplishment, said he knew from an early age what he would do for a living.
“I was always interested in science,” he said. “It’s always been my best subject in school.”
But, his mom had other ideas.
“I thought he was going to be a cook,” Natalice Olson said, “because he liked to mix things.”