Students study nuclear fusion in Federal Way man's garage

A select group of students are given the privilege of performing scientific experiments with Carl Greninger
A select group of students are given the privilege of performing scientific experiments with Carl Greninger's fully functional IEC-9000 nuclear fusion reactor.
— image credit: Greg Allmain/Federal Way Mirror

Usually, when teenagers gather together in a garage on a Friday night, it means they're likely up to no good.

However, in Federal Way, a group of local teens gathers every Friday, from 7 to 9 p.m., to study nuclear physics and science.

As crazy as that may sound, it's true. Thanks to Carl Greninger and a partnership with Federal Way Public Schools, a select group of students are given the privilege of performing scientific experiments with Greninger's fully functional IEC-9000 nuclear fusion reactor.

Greninger works as the IT operations program manager for Microsoft by day and moonlights as a nuclear physics and science teacher by night. The chance to work with the students who gather at his house every Friday night is one Greninger relishes.

"I love it. I am totally about this. These are the best of the best, and there isn't a bozo in the bunch," he said. "They are top flight kids."

Greninger's love for all things nuclear came from his family and his time in the military.

"After I got out of the Army, I did five years with the Air Force at Fairchild Air Force Base, and then I went on to do another five years at Submarine Base Bangor, and did things I will not confirm nor deny," he said with a chuckle.

On Dec. 7, Aviation High School student Jake Hecla was giving a lecture on the plastic known as C-39, and how it can be used to study the ways radiation interacts with matter. The intent of an upcoming project that Hecla and parts of the group will be working on is to study how neutrons are emitted from Greninger's reactor. The C-39 will be integral in their experiment.

While that lecture was going on, Greninger gave a tour of his facility that's located in his Federal Way garage. Tucked away behind something of a hidden door, one walks into a dark room full of strange and exotic lights. Greninger explained all the things his reactor is capable of doing, making sure to stress that it is not a nuclear fission reactor (i.e., Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, etc). It is instead a thermonuclear reactor, which means fusion and not fission.

He said that in the three-year history of this program, no one has ever been exposed to a single dose of radiation.

"The kids are all trained at operating this," he said. "They all have their clipboards, and there is a 97-step procedure they have to follow in order to bring it up and turn it on. No one has ever been exposed to a dose of radiation in the history of the program. There's nobody here getting cooked."

In the room directly off the reactor room, there is another batch of high-end science equipment and materials. From a chemistry area, to a radiochemistry lab, to a small experiment that runs a radio off of heat from a kerosene lamp, the wonders available to the students who participate in this program are easy to see.

"What (all of this) does, is give these young people a real source of radiation," Greninger said, "to actually conduct all the same experiments and disciplines you would see in a second year nuclear engineering class at a major university."

(Pictured: Students work on a voltage multiplier Dec. 7 at Greninger's home in Federal Way)

The students seem to be very aware of how fortunate they are to have this opportunity.

"For me, I'd say this is an inspirational tool," said Rian Chandra, a student from Olympia's Capitol High School. "We can see something like this, as opposed to Ball A rolls down Ramp B. This is the science. I don't anticipate getting to work with this type of equipment until I'm well into undergrad, if not grad school."

Auburn Riverside student Kayla Schuh says working with Greninger's reactor and the related facilities is much more fun than what her school would have her doing in science class.

"It's nice, because in school we don't get to do anything fun," she said. "And here, we get to. Here we get to do actual science, and in school, it's reading a book with awful pictures."

Todd Beamer High School senior Paul Kalebu echoed those feelings, saying what they get to do at Greninger's house on a weekly basis is far and away better than anything school has to offer.

"Right now, I'm taking AP Biology, and last year I took AP Chemistry," Kalebu said. "They're all college level classes, and none of the stuff we do there matches up to what we do here. I'm pretty passionate about science, and this is really close to satisfying me more than what I find at school."

The five students who make up part of the group from Beamer are led by Jerry Glaser, a math and physics teacher. For Glaser, the opportunities afforded by the access to Greninger's reactor, and the potential impact on education in the future, are immense.

"I never thought I would have been involved in anything like this," Glaser said. "I've been teaching for 33 years now. This is true science…it's not like when I was teaching physics before. I would get a styrofoam cup and a piece of a string and a bunch of washers with a weight on the other end. We'd be spinning it and not really doing actual science."

"I wish this could be brought into the schools in an even greater way. My goal on this is to try, through video technology… (to) bring these lessons into the classroom," he added.

Glaser said he hopes to develop some kind of system where kids in a classroom, no matter the distance, would be able to conduct and perform their own experiments with the reactor, either through a remote-controlled system of some kind, or, to have parts of the team available and have students submit questions and experiment ideas through that aforementioned video format.

Part of what Glaser hopes will make that dream a reality is the team's involvement with the Samsung national contest "Solve For Tomorrow."

(Pictured: Todd Beamer High School students listen to a lecture on nuclear physics Dec. 7 at Greninger's home in Federal Way)

The Beamer team has already been chosen among the top 75 semi-finalists for projects that "show how science or math can help improve the environment in (a) community." If the team ends up in the top 15 from that 75, they will be awarded a technology grant worth approximately $40,000 and will have videos they made as part of the contest get posted on Samsung's website.

For Greninger, this gathering of teens every week in his basement is just another experiment in a lifetime of experiments, but it's one that seems to be working well.

"There's something here that's drawing them that's a lot more powerful than just studying, because this stuff is bonehead hard. It's a lot of math," he said. "And what we're finding is that the educational system is so currently underfunded, and the state has tied the hands of the budget so badly, we really can't afford to inspire, or claim to inspire these kids. I will get out the torch. That's what this is … a great experiment. We are now in year three of this, and it's no longer, 'I have a theory.' We are looking dead in the face at facts. These kids are here, they're serious, and they're learning a ton."

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