For the past four years, Brooklyn web designer Mark Suppes has been building a nuclear-fusion reactor in the corner of a friend's cluttered warehouse -- even though he has no background in nuclear physics, has never even studied electrical engineering and has a full-time website job at The New York Times.

Suppes, 34, was inspired by a video made by Robert Bussard, one of fusion's pioneers, on the technology's potential to solve the world's energy problems. "I couldn't think of a better project to get involved in," he says.

Suppes's reactor -- which incorporates parts sourced on eBay -- is about the size of a filing cabinet and looks like something out of Back to the Future: "The whole thing is really cool, ancient technology," he says. "Pipes and pumps and tubes. I am using an electron gun from an old cathode-ray tube from the 50s."

At its centre is a core of deuterium atoms that, when heated to 100 million degrees Celsius, should fuse into helium and release a huge amount of safe, clean energy. The challenge, though, is how to achieve such a high temperature (about six times hotter than the Sun's core) without using more energy than is created. He isn't alone in trying to solve the problem. The US Navy is tackling the issue at a base in California, an international project is under way in southern France, and Iran is rumoured to be working on a reactor; but, as far as he knows, Suppes's is the only small-scale project and the only one to use superconducting magnets -- the key, he says, to making the reactor efficient.

Suppes is getting advice and support from the open-source community. (cont.)