Physics makes Capital student react

18-year-old part of state-winning science team that will compete at international event

lpemberton@theolympian.comApril 22, 2013 

Capital High School senior Rian Chandra loves physics. He grins like he’s love-struck, and gets a twinkle in his eyes when he’s talking about it.

“Physics is the most fundamental science,” he said. “Everything is built off of it.”

Chandra, 18, of Olympia, is founder of his school’s science club and robotics team.

“He’s a wonderful student,” said Capital physics teacher Steven Bove.

But it’s Chandra’s work outside of school that is getting a huge dose of recognition.

Chandra is part of a team of students from the Puget Sound region who recently brought home gold medals and top honors from the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair.

Their project involved work with a small-scale nuclear fusion reactor that’s about the size of a large refrigerator.

Originally, Chandra wanted to build a nuclear reactor in his garage, but Bove said he advised him against it.

“It’s dangerous,” the teacher said. “You have high voltage, explosive gas and radiation.”

In addition, Chandra’s parents, who are faculty members at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, wouldn’t let him build one.

So last fall, Chandra joined the North West Nuclear Consortium, a program founded by Microsoft IT Operations program manager Carl Greninger, who worked with teens to build a Farnsworth Fusor in his garage.

It’s an educational partnership that teaches kids about science by letting them work on real-world projects.

“It’s a group of teenagers who are interested in spending their Friday nights doing physics rather than whatever other teenagers do on Friday nights,” Chandra said.

Raymond Maung of Kentwood High School in Kent and Jake Hecla of Aviation High School in Des Moines also collaborated on the project.

The trio won an all-expense paid trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix in May, where they will compete against about 1,500 projects for nearly $3 million in prizes.

In addition, Capital High School senior Sumukh Bharadwaj qualified for the international event when he took first place the South Sound Regional Science Fair for a project on supersonic technology, Bove said. Bharadwaj participated in it last year, too, bringing home an Air Force Research Lab Award and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots First Award.

Chandra’s crew mapped the location where nuclear fusion takes place within the reactor.

Current theory assumes that fusion — which happens when two atoms of deuterium (a hydrogen isotope) collide with enough energy to form a new atom and release a high-energy neutron or proton in the process — takes place at the center of the reactor, Chandra said.

But the students’ research indicated fusion also takes place outside of the central area, he said.

“Our project was observation,” Chandra added. “It wasn’t an experiment.”

The teen said he couldn’t have gotten so far in the competition without Bove’s mentorship, Greninger’s resources and support, and countless hours of hard work by his teammates.

Chandra has been accepted into the honors program at the University of Washington, where he plans to study his favorite subject. And someday, he wants to be a professional physics researcher, and get paid “for learning and understanding the universe better.”

“There’s so much work to be done in physics still, humans haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” Chandra said. “And you get to play with really cool toys.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 @Lisa_Pemberton

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