Carl Smith ’16 Begins Nuclear Career in Elementary School

Carl Smith ‘16 distinctly remembers his first video game. What intrigued Smith most about The Simpsons Road Rage game was the fact that it featured a nuclear power plant. After learning about how nuclear plants generate significant amounts of electricity, Smith became fascinated by radiation and all of its properties — at the age of eight.

Several years later, his mother passed away. This experience prompted him to reflect on his life and his future aspirations. Ultimately, it nudged him in the direction of following his dreams.

“The loss of my mom was the final push that prompted me to pursue my interest in nuclear engineering and, in particular, nuclear fusion,” says Smith.

Carl Smith with the nuclear fusor he created in his garage for a high school project.
Carl Smith with the nuclear fusor he created in his garage for a high school project.

Instead of waiting for his career as a nuclear engineer to begin after receiving a college degree, Smith decided to build his own nuclear fusor for a senior project at Southeast Raleigh High School. After some preliminary research, Smith found an online community of individuals who made these devices and began collecting parts for his fusor. Approximately one year later, Smith had created a working device in his garage that could generate plasma.

“I obtained the majority of my parts from websites such as eBay and United Nuclear, as well as from other people who were doing research in the same field,” says Smith. “One of my most memorable moments was when I learned that my friend had a semi-functional scanning electron microscope in his basement. After a three hour dialogue with his father, I walked out with $3,000 worth of parts for free.”

While a high school sophomore, Smith first met Steven Shannon, an associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, at the NC State Young Investigators’ Summer Program in Nuclear Engineering. In the months that followed, Smith sought Shannon’s advice on his project. Shannon would later become Smith’s Park Faculty Mentor during his first semester at NC State.

“Dr. Shannon introduced me to the research that he conducted in his lab which I believe helped motivate me,” says Smith. “At the time, I told him that I was going to build my own device and two years later it’s in his lab.”

Overall, Smith estimates that he spent over 200 hours on the project and a total of $1,600 of his own funds. The fusor has since been moved from his garage to a more appropriate location — the Burlington Nuclear Engineering Lab on the NCState campus.

Smith’s fusor generating plasma and heating a central grid at over 14,000 volts.
Smith’s fusor generating plasma and heating a central grid at over 14,000 volts.

At NC State, Smith is currently working with Shannon to optimize the fusor. They are trying to get the device to a state where it can generate neutrons for research purposes.

“It is really amazing what Carl has done up to this point — it is not very often that a first year student brings a functioning experiment into your lab,” says Shannon. “The plan moving forward is to use this experiment as a mechanism for expanding Carl’s already impressive abilities and utilize some of the equipment and know-how that we have in our lab to grow both the experiment and the engineer.”

Smith also recently received news that a paper he wrote with graduate students during a summer experience at the University of Florida will be published in Optics Letters, a journal covering the areas of optics and photonics.

With this device and paper under his belt, Smith is interested in conducting research on next generation fuels and the design of Generation IV reactors. He envisions himself working at a national laboratory or for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

posted 2012.10.15