Call him Springfield's resident genius. Andrew Grzankowski, a graduate of West Springfield High School, spent his summer vacation building a fusion reactor at Longwood University in Farmville.
"I wanted to do something different," said Grzankowski, now a senior at Longwood. "I read a magazine article about a high school student who did this and I figured we should be able to get better equipment."
With encouragement from his parents and the support and assistance of chemistry professor Keith Rider, Grzankowski got down to business in the school's new science building and began to set up shop in a brand new laboratory.
Modeled after what is called a Farnsworth Fusion reactor, Grzankowski built a 4.8-inch chamber out of stainless steel. A vacuum is attached to the small cylinder to eliminate all the air, and then it is filled with deuterium, an ion of hydrogen with an extra neutron. Then a power source is turned on, which pulls together the deuterium to form a bluish-purple gas or plasma. When the atoms of hydrogen smash together in the center of the cylinder, the extra neutron of hydrogen flies off, releasing energy. The reaction takes "10 to the negative 10th of a second," Grzankowski said.
Sounds easy enough, right?
FUSION IS NOT a new idea, Grzankowski said. In fact, that is how the sun produces light and heat that the inhabitants of Earth enjoy every day. Many high school students build similar reactors for their science fairs, he said.
Inspired by high school math and science teachers, Grzankowski said his love of science has followed him throughout his education.
"I read everything I can about science, whether it is in my field or not," he said.
Coming from a mechanically-inclined family probably helps, too.
Richard Grzankowski, Andrew's father, is a mechanic, and his brothers and sisters, Andrew's aunts and uncles, include mechanics and engineers of various specialties.
"When Andrew started school, he wanted to be a physical therapist," Richard Grzankowski said. "Eventually, he decided to be a math and science major, which makes sense. He's always loved astrophysics. He was always watching the Discovery Channel and talking to us about black holes."
While at college over the summer, Andrew Grzankowski would keep his family and friends updated on his project through various Web sites and message boards so he could also share information with others working on building their own reactors.
Andrew Grzankowski was also inspired by an international group of scientists collaborating on a larger project with the hopes of creating an energy efficient way of forcing fusion reactions as a possible alternative energy source, Richard Grzankowski said.
"I have never seen Andrew so enthusiastic about a project in his entire life," his father said. "When he was growing up, I couldn't get him to put a nail in a board."
Richard Grzankowski is unsure if his son understands the importance of his project and the doors it may open for him as he chooses a graduate school.
"It's such an honor for him to be putting this together, especially at his age," Richard Grzankowski said. "Later in life, I hope he'll look back and be able to see how huge this really is for him. We're very excited."
Keith Rider, a chemistry professor at Longwood, has been working side by side with Andrew Grzankowski on the reactor.
THE ONLY PROBLEM the pair has encountered so far is the need for a larger power source, which should be delivered to the school any day now.
"Over the summer, we had to machine a few parts because we didn't have exactly what we needed, which gave Andrew the chance to learn how to make certain things," Rider said. "The guys in the machine shop were stunned because he'd never used a lathe before and the components he made turned out so well."
Once the power supply comes in, Rider and Grzankowski will be able to know, for certain, their reactor is working.
Another student, currently a junior, has been working with Rider and Grzankowski by creating a model of the reactor on their computers. Eventually, the goal is to use the simulator to make their reactor more efficient, Rider said, and once Grzankowski graduates in May, the other student will take over his research.
"I have to admit, I'm a little nervous," Rider said. "Things have been going so well so far, I think we must be due for a disaster."
With the support of Charles Ross, Dean of the school's art and science department, Rider and Grzankowski were able to purchase the equipment and supplies needed to build the reactor from grants provided by the school. Grzankowski also received a stipend for his work, which saved him a little relaxation time instead of needing to get a summer job to buy books for the year.
"We are trying to make undergraduate research a signature program here at the university, and build on the faculty-student connections we have had here for a long time," Ross said.
A physics professor who earned his undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering, Ross said he is pleased with Grzankowski and happy to support him in his research.
"In my experience, this is how students really learn, when they get their hands on this," he said. "It's the way real life works. The more opportunities we give students, the better."
Rider said he hopes other students will be inspired by Grzankowski's work and look to Longwood as a research school, where they can receive more personal attention and cooperation from their professors than they would at larger schools.
"There are very few undergrad students who have the chance to work on projects like this at the larger institutions," he said.
Fusion may be an inefficient source of energy now, but Grzankowski said he hopes research projects like his will slowly change that.
"With our current energy demands, we need to come up with something better," he said. "This right now is not an alternative energy source, but it's something we haven't been able to tap into yet. If the international science project is successful, we might be able to get 10 times the amount of energy out of a fusion reaction as it takes to create it."