Sizzling design

Project reflects mathematics,Greek tale

Posted: Tuesday, August 30, 2005

 

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  Hibberd uses an old shirt to demonstrate how the mirrors concentrate the sun's rays into a hot spot. "My mom's paranoid that we're going to burn the house down," Hibberd said as he covered the "death ray" with a large towel before putting it away. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Brian Hibberd is reflected in some of the mirrors that make up the "solar death ray" he and a friend constructed this summer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

One of the most exciting parts of Brian Hibberd's summer was when he watched a Nalgene water bottle erupt into flames. The fire, however, was no accident. And it was not started with a match and gasoline.

The fire was started with a solar death ray.

A solar death ray is a device that uses dozens of mirrors mounted on a platform to reflect sunlight in a concentrated area to superheat objects — often starting a fire.

At 18 years old and entering his first year of college, Hibberd and his friend Noah King decided to spend his summer building a death ray and after watching hosts of the television show "MythBusters" attempt to build one — and fail.

After the television show failed to build one that worked, it waged a contest challenging viewers to succeed where it had failed.

Hibberd was convinced he could succeed.

"They're under time constraints, but I'm not," he said.

With a knack for mathematics and a love of fire, Hibberd made an equation to uniformly angle the mirrors on blocks of wood.

"We spent hours a day cutting blocks," he said.

 

Hibberd uses an old shirt to demonstrate how the mirrors concentrate the sun's rays into a hot spot. "My mom's paranoid that we're going to burn the house down," Hibberd said as he covered the "death ray" with a large towel before putting it away.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

However, when he was nearly finished with his summer project and ready to enter it in the competition, Hibberd and King realized they overlooked an important detail: contestants needed to be 21 to enter.

"It's kind of disappointing, but I have a death ray," he said.

When the death ray was complete, Hibberd said he took a black sock, held it on a stick in the middle of the mirrors but did not see flames. He said it only smoked.

But then he tried a piece of cardboard and watched it burst into flames.

Due to these former Skyview High School students' efforts, an operational solar death ray can now be found on the central Kenai Peninsula.

However, the history of the death ray goes back long before they, or "MythBusters," tried to build one.

Legend goes that the Greek scientist Archimedes, who was born around 287 B.C., used mirrors reflecting sunlight to burn a fleet of Roman ships.

While Hibberd did not design his death ray to burn large objects, such as ships, he did successfully build one that can burn smaller objects.

While he acknowledges there is not a real practical use for one of these devices, he said it was time well spent.

"I'm really proud that I built it," Hibberd said.

Now that he is heading off to college at the University of Alaska Anchorage, he said he wants to give the death ray to somebody who can make good use of it — like a high school physics teacher.

"My mom doesn't really want it hanging around the house after I leave," he said.

Brian's mother, Linda Hibberd, said it is too heavy for her to move on her own.

When questioned if she was concerned about it inadvertently catching something on fire, she said, "Just a little bit. If anything in the whole neighborhood burned down, they would look for the death ray. It needed to find a home where it was enclosed."

More information on solar death rays can be found on the Web at www.solardeath-ray.com.



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