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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Inventor Tries to Save the World

MTLev Maximov

Editor's note: This is the first of two stories, click here to read the follow-on story.

Lev Maximov has engines in his head. Metals levitate in his mind. His dreams are nuclear.

The 66-year-old pensioner and inexhaustible inventor gets better with age, registering a dozen patents in the last two years alone. Of the 60 or so unique gizmos to his credit, he's certain that at least a couple can literally save the world -- or at least make it a much safer place to live.

Although not everyone takes his work seriously, many do, some so much that they've stolen his designs, his institute and nearly his life. Maximov doesn't like to talk about that, though. It's not that he minds, it's just that he would rather talk about the only things that really matter to him -- his machines.

He says his latest creation, a gas-powered steam generator, is vastly more efficient than those currently used to produce comparable amounts of energy and "could save the world" if he could only convince the United States, the world's biggest polluter, of its economic benefits.

Contemporary gas- and coal-powered generators can be as large as 10-story buildings and produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the acidic gas most scientists say causes global warming. Maximov's version is about 1,000 times smaller and also produces carbon dioxide, but in liquid form, which can be used to make all kinds of marketable products, such as fertilizers, medicines and dry ice.

"We can create enough pressure to liquefy the carbon dioxide so it can be collected and used," he says. "Some countries want to pump the byproduct deep into the sea, but why? If my technology is implemented, the byproduct will be worth 100 times more than the initial cost of the gas needed to power the boiler in the first place."

And then there is the levitating liquid metal device -- one of Maximov's first, and he still says his best, invention. Patented in 1960, this contraption organizes gas pressure in such a way that liquid materials, including metals, are levitated inside a large vessel at the top of a factory and then pulled down through specially shaped openings that can spit out metal products such as pipes or train rails at a rate of 1 kilometer an hour.

"Imagine a ton of liquid metal that has just been melted. Normally it cools down, then it goes to the presses to become flat. Then it is cut. Then it is bent and then welded into a pipe or something else. With my invention, pipes of any diameter can be cut to any length as they form and are immediately ready to use. The amount of liquid metal in the vessel is limited only by the volume of the vessel and can be any size -- even 100 tons," he says.

"Today, officially, about 30 percent of all of the energy produced in the world is used for metallurgy. With my technology, the figure would be in the single digits."

Maximov's most controversial -- and potentially most profitable -- creation, however, is a nuclear reactor that runs on thorium, as opposed to much-more volatile uranium or plutonium.

The reactor is so safe that terrorists will drop nuclear plants from their list of potential targets, he says. The most vulnerable part of present-day reactors are the control rods that regulate chain reactions, but Maximov's assembly has no rods whatsoever.

"If a plane crashes into my reactor, or a suicide bomber blows it up, it would cause some radioactive pollution -- but only in the immediate vicinity. With the exception of thorium, the fuel will contain only a little bit of weapons-grade uranium, just enough to trigger the chain reaction in the thorium."

The reactor would not only make the nuclear plants immune from Chernobyl-type meltdowns, the technology would revolutionize the entire energy industry by making nuclear power exponentially more cost efficient: Maximov believes his assembly would be operational for up to 50 years, whereas the uranium assemblies Russia currently uses work for about three years.

State Duma Deputy Ivan Nikitchuk, a nuclear scientist from Arzamas-16, one of the still-restricted scientific settlements where much of the nation's secret nuclear research is conducted, said that if the government eventually embraces Maximov's thorium fuel assembly, Russia would gain "a colossal economic advantage." "In contemporary reactors we now burn a maximum of 7 percent of the nuclear fuel that runs them," Nikitchuk said. "Even if we could utilize half of the fuel, it would be huge progress. But if, as Maximov says, his thorium reactor could burn 90 percent, it would be a breakthrough."

Without funding, however, Maximov's machines will remain on paper and his body of work will never receive the scrutiny it deserves. With a monthly government stipend of 1,400 rubles ($45), he can't afford to do much more than think and design.

But things weren't always that way.

Originally trained in the 1950s and '60s as a nuclear physicist, by the 1980s Maximov had developed scores of original concepts in areas a far afield as industry, defense and space, and in 1989 the Soviet Union's Council of Ministers decided to build him his own research institute.

Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, who signed the decree creating the institute, said in an interview that the idea to build the center came after experiments based on Maximov's levitating liquids machine at Uralmash, one of the nation's largest metals factories, proved promising. "I understood that all of Maximov's ideas were very attractive and that they could be used in different sectors of the economy," Ryzhkov said. "That is why we decided to build him a research and design center."

A vast scientific complex that would cover three hectares and employ 1,000 scientists and 2,000 other people was supposed to be built in Novosibirsk to develop Maximov's ideas.

The Council of Ministers even gave it a classic Soviet-style appellative: the Institute of Physic and Technical Problems of Metallurgy and Special Machine-Building of the U.S.S.R.'s Minatomenergoprom.

Some $10 million was spent constructing a 14-story, 25,000 square meter building that was to be the main design and research center, but the project never got off the ground -- it collapsed together with the Soviet Union.

The entire complex was 90 percent finished when it was auctioned off by the regional administration in 1993 "for the price of a three-room apartment," Maximov says. He doesn't remember the exact price, he says, because "rubles were crazy then."

A year later, Maximov's entire scientific archive was stolen, including secret reports written for the Soviet government and the blueprints for 10 of his inventions that he intended to patent abroad. He says he was never able to initiate a proper investigation into the crime, but he believes the booty ended up in the archives of what is now the Nuclear Power Ministry, a charge the ministry denies.

That same year, on Aug. 27, 1994, he was abducted by several people inside one of Novosibirsk's secret nuclear research compounds and shoved him behind the seat of a car. He said it was clear to him that his abductors intended to kill him, but security guards managed to free him before the car could leave the compound. Again, no investigation followed, he says, because law enforcement authorities refused to cooperate.

The "attempt" on Maximov's life came shortly after he started to protest publicly against a deal the Kremlin had struck with Washington to turn highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium that would be sold to the United States for use in its nuclear power plants.

That deal, hailed as a hallmark in post Cold War relations, resulted in Russia selling virtually all of its existing weapons-grade uranium -- 500 tons -- to the United States for $11.9 billion, a fraction of the $8 trillion a special State Duma commission investigating the deal in 1997 concluded it was worth.

On April 8, 1997, the chief of staff of the Siberian military district, Lieutenant General Yevgeny Malakhov, referring to Maximov's outspoken opposition to the uranium deal, wrote State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov a letter in which he warned that Maximov's life was in danger.

"We have information that an extremely alarming situation has developed around L. N. Maximov that threatens his life. This and several other facts say the scholar has touched on the interests of big state crooks. The precautions being taken now cannot provide [him] safety for long; more radical measures are needed," Malakhov wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times.

Seleznyov, however, never received the warning, Maximov says, and two years later he was attacked again, this time while riding Novosibirsk's longest escalator.

Several men with stun guns rendered him unconscious as he descended into the Ploshchad Lenina metro station and when he came to they beat him with brass knuckles. He spent six months in the hospital recovering and the damage done in the attack can still be seen on his forehead, but again, no investigation followed.

Maximov has no time to contemplate what history may or may not decide about his work; he's too busy inventing.

Next up? A car engine that will work on liquefied air, for which Rospatent, the state patents agency, just gave preliminary approval.

But it is his nuclear designs that continue to spark controversy.

And in this field, where billions of dollars are at stake, Maximov is seen as a dangerous outsider threatening the well-being of a handful of senior officials at the powerful Nuclear Power Ministry.