How I Built a Nuclear Reactor at the Age of 13: Jamie Edwards at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

Nuclear power. I guess this is what most people think of when it comes to nuclear power.

Well, for me, this is what I think of; or more specifically, this. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you how all this started. Even as a young kid, I was always asking questions. Questions to my mom, my dad, my teachers, but eventually, they weren’t able to answer my questions anymore. So, I turned to the Internet to find some answers.

It was on the Internet that I came across this guy, Taylor Wilson, who’d created nuclear fusion at 14. I was like, “Wow! Fusion! In the back garden!” I had to find out more. So, while searching online, I came across fusornet, a group of amateur scientists who were building these Farnsworth fusors. It was there that I worked out that it was actually possible for me to build one of these.

I figured it’d cost around 2,000 pounds. Slight problem, I didn’t have 2,000 pounds. I was going to have to raise the money myself, so I started writing to some local nuclear labs, big engineering companies, universities. But you know what? For some reason, they didn’t want to give 2,000 pounds to a 13-year-old trying to build a nuclear reactor. No idea why.

So instead, I asked my school science teacher if she could help with my project. She suggested we tried the head teacher. So after a “Dragons’ Den” style pitch to Mr Hourigan, I managed to persuade him to part with 2,000 pounds. So, armed with the school credit card, I turned to eBay.

I bought parts from all over the world: power supplies from the USA, resistance from Hong Kong and vacuum pumps from Lithuania. I built this. My fusion reactor. However, I couldn’t get everything from eBay. Their terms and conditions were a little restrictive, even the specialist gas supply seemed concerned. They wanted to know why exactly a 13-year-old schoolboy from Lancashire wanted ten liters of deuterium gas – Anyway – This is the neutron detector, it’s a key part of the reactor.

I use it to tell me if the reaction has actually happened or not. However, they are not easy to get hold of. I had to call everyone I knew to find someone who might know someone who might just happen to know someone else who actually has one of these. In the end, a local university lent me this one. The high-voltage power supply was one of the most expensive parts, but when it arrived from the USA, it didn’t work.

Even to this day, I haven’t figured out why. But luckily, a local switchgear company not only lent me the kit to use it, they also taught me how to use it safely. There was so much about safety. Apparently, there was some concern about letting a 13-year-old loose with a nuclear reactor in school. Not sure why.

One of the conditions was I had to be over two meters away from the reactor while in operation. Slight problem, you see these arms? There was no way I could reach. But thanks to the school’s tech department and some complex engineering, we made these. They designed broom handles with bits of plastic, superglued to the end, so I could operate the controls from a distance. There was also the problem that I might touch the reactor while it was in operation.

So we made a high-tech chicken wire cage, and put it around the reactor so I couldn’t touch it. There was also the problem of a high-energy neutron radiation coming out of the reactor. So this was my solution: my sister’s fish tanks. Minus the fish, of course. We filled them with a boron solution to act as moderator and absorber of the neutrons.

And finally, just in case I managed to electrocute myself, we made this. It is indeed a hook made of old bike inner tubes in case I managed to electrocute myself and needed rescuing. So, the big day had come. I was feeling calm until the press started turning up. I might have mentioned something to Mr Hourigan, about the possibility of some PR from the school. I was only thinking the local paper. But press from all over the place turned up. So, I had everything set up, the cameras were ready, my hook was at the ready, and then we switched on the reactor. The first thing I did was pump down the chamber and apply the high voltage.

That’s when I achieved this: plasma, a key step in producing fusion. I played with this for a while, until I was confident. I was getting the balance right between power and vacuum, and then all that I had to do was up the voltage, and add in a tiny bit of deuterium gas. I achieved this: a reading on the neutron detector. I’d done it. It was amazing.

All my hard work had paid off. But now, as a young scientist, I now need to go back to the experiment and do it again because as you all know, in science, we need to repeat our experiments and duplicate our results, and that’s my current focus. But none of this would have happened if it weren’t for a science teacher who believed in the dreams of her pupils, and a head teacher who was willing to take a risk to give me the opportunity. So, to any young scientist out there, no matter how young: nothing is ever too big for you to try. All you need is curiosity, determination, and an open mind.

Thank you.

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