Science Interviews


Tue, 11th Mar 2014

Nuclear fusion in the classroom

Jamie Edwards and Jim Hourigan, Penwortham Priory Academy, Preston

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This week a 13-year-old British schoolboy has become the world’s youngest person to carry out nuclear fusion. Jamie Edwards, is a pupil at Penwortham Priory Academy in Lancashire. He explained to Chris Smith how Jamie Edwards he recreated a star, in a jar...

Jamie - So, what I've done is I've recreated a process on Earth that happens on the sun on a daily basis. So, nuclear fusion – the process of smashing 2 hydrogen atoms together and making helium. What I do, I have this vacuum chamber and all the air is pumped out of there by two vacuum pumps. Then I add a tiny, tiny bit of deuterium gas – heavy hydrogen – into the chamber. Then I apply about 30,000 volts via an electrode into the centre of this chamber. This rips apart the atom into its electrons and its positively charged nucleus. This positively charged nucleus is accelerated towards the negatively charged electrode. Thousands and thousands of these deuterium nuclei are doing the same thing. Eventually, two of these are going to hit together with a tremendous amount of energy. Fused together then you got a helium atom. But this helium atoms, it’s very, very energetic. Instead of releasing the energy as heat, it sends out a high energy neutron. So, you can just get a neutron detector, then you can prove that you've done nuclear fusion.

Chris - The energetic neutron, is that dangerous at all?

Jamie - Well, in large amounts, it could be very dangerous because it’s like a very high energy, fast neutron. But to prevent that, I've got like various safety mechanisms in place, tanks of water. They act to slow down the neutron and reduce the energy. Then they're scattered around the room instead of all being directly thrown at me.

Chris - How long did it take you to dream this up?

Jamie - I started in last April and I was looking around for the local nuclear labs like at Sellafield and some of the local universities to see if they'd like, sponsor me into doing a project like this and most of the replies that I was getting were pretty negative really. They were all like, “Thanks, but no thanks.” So I thought, maybe if I asked my school and then maybe they could help me. So, I did a Dragons Den style pitch to Mr. Hourigan, my head teacher, he was like, “Yeah, sure. We’ll give that a go.” I think he’s a bit scared at first, but he was alright with it.

Jim - My name is Jim Hourigan. I'm Head Teacher at Penwortham Priory Academy. I had a sort of appointment in the diary from the head of science who said she'd just like to come along with a young boy in year 9 who had a proposal for me. In walked young Jamie and he had a PowerPoint which just said, “I want to build a fusion reactor at Priory. Will you support me?” He talked me through the reasons why he wanted to do it, what was required. He had explained that he'd tried a couple of universities to support him financially. He wasn’t getting anywhere, so he'd come to me almost as a last resort because he had this challenge, he wanted to become the youngest fusioneer in the world and he had to achieve that before he came to his 14th birthday and he explained about the young lad in America that had achieved this in 2008, I think it was.

Chris - How much money did he want?

Jim - He costed it and he thought it would cost no more than 2,000 pounds.

Chris - So, did you happen to have 2,000 pounds?

Jim - Yeah, there's always a little bit of money spare. There's always some accounts that don't quite fully spend up. So, it wasn’t an extortionate amount of money from my point of view.

Chris - Do you think now that you've returned on that investment, are you glad you made it?

Jim - Enormously so, yeah. Just the impact that we’ve had in terms of the recognition of the school, of Jamie, what he’s achieved. And you can't put money on that. You can't sort of judge that and value that in terms of what we’re achieving, but we have a motto at school about being locally respected, nationally recognised. And this is meeting that goal enormously, but that wasn’t what we'd set out to do, but it is clearly having that as a spinoff.

Chris - Do you think this is going to translate into more children taking science at a higher level?

Jim - Very much so. We’ve already had, as soon as children over the last sort of month or so, as they've seen Jamie’s project grow and as they've seen the actual reactor develop in one of the labs. We’ve had children coming to us already asking, can they get involved in other projects. There's a Google science project and there's a few lads and a girl actually want to get involved in that. So already, that sort of enthusiasm is already sort of dissipating into the rest of the school.

Chris - So Jamie, what do you want to do next?

Jamie - In the short term, I want to go on onto doing more research with the fusion reactor that I've got at the minute, looking into uses for these high energy neutrons so they can be made into medical isotopes for uses for detecting cancer, things like that. And then maybe eventually, trying to get nuclear fusion so efficient that it produces more energy out than I've put in. I've already come up with some plans. I'm not going to tell the world just yet.


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Fusion only occurs at high temperatures and densities these various cold fusion scams have frequently been demonstrated to be false. syhprum, Thu, 13th Mar 2014

Accelerating ions using electric fields in a vacuum chamber can impart significant energy to the particles - enough to generate X-Rays.  But it's quite a challenge to get beams of ionised deuterium and tritium to collide with each other, instead of the electrodes.

There is one known method for creating fusion at relatively low temperatures and pressures: Muon-Catalysed Fusion.

However, like all public, verified claims of controlled fusion to date, you have to put in far more energy when creating the fusion conditions than the usable power you get out (despite recent announcements from the National Ignition Facility). evan_au, Fri, 14th Mar 2014

I would ask which reaction occurred:

2H ==> 1H + Neutron
2(2H) ==> 4He ==> 3He + Neutron

How are they ruling out simple fission (which would be endothermic)?

In the first reaction, some simple hydrogen would be formed.  In the second, very rare 3He.  If enough atoms were formed, they should be relatively easy to separate. CliffordK, Sat, 15th Mar 2014

This is fusion at energies around 30KeV
you just called 340 million degrees "cold".

And re
"2H ==> 1H + Neutron"
"Stripping is the immediate and casual explanation of so many ignorant physicists who really think that we are not doing fusion at all in our systems and think all of our neutrons are just knock offs.
I further realize that it is THEIR problem and not ours, but we have to note to them that stripping reactions of the sort they are referring to don't begin anywhere near our level of operation in the fusors. "

Bored chemist, Sat, 15th Mar 2014

If producing fusion was only a matter of producing the required high temperature it would be easy peasy presumably it would be happening all the time within the CRT of my old TV.
What is required is a product of temperature and density for a sufficient time.
Modern Uranium 235 Bombs use a similar device to increase the speed of ignition instead of the vastly expensive and difficult control polonium 210 that was used in the first one, in fact the first drawings of atom bombs published in 1946 showed an Xray tube like device as the use of Polonium 210 was still considered secret.  syhprum, Sat, 15th Mar 2014

" it would be happening all the time within the CRT of my old TV."
To exactly the extent that your old telly is full of deuterium- i.e. not at all.

"What is required is a product of temperature and density for a sufficient time."
And, with this sort of fusor the time is essentially unlimited and the density is quite high.

Have actually you read how they did it?
Are you aware that this neutron emitter tubes are reasonably readily available?

Are you just saying this is impossible because you don't understand how it's done?
Bored chemist, Sat, 15th Mar 2014

Stung by your criticism I carefully re-read the original article although I don't think I missed any thing the first time.
What the school seems to have constructed seems to be an unsophisticated unsealed Neutron generator (I am of course familiar with the commercially available devices), in as much as such devices work by a fusion process they can be said to have constructed a nuclear fusion device but it is not what most people think of as nuclear fusion.
My old TV has an amateur rebuilt CRT which is not as well pumped as the commercial production and in all likelihood contains a small amount of H20 and D2O.  syhprum, Sat, 15th Mar 2014

I understand that the mathematicians' definition of "very" is that if a is a small number and b is a small number then a times b is a very small number.
There will be a small number of deuterium atoms in your friend's tube.
And they will probably get ionised and attracted to the cathode but they are vastly more likely to hit almost anything but another deuterium atom because the fraction of other atoms that are deuterium is small. So the likelihood of fusion is very small.

Unsurprisingly that's different from the state of affairs in a fusor where foreign gases are excluded as far as possible and deuterium is plentiful of the order of ten  or a hundred microns of mercury pressure about 10^-4 atmospheres. You might want to compare that with about 10^-9 torr in a CRT (about 10^-12 atm). the difference is so vast it doesn't matter if I'm out by a couple of orders of magnitude here or there.

So previously you said "these various cold fusion scams have frequently been demonstrated to be false."
and I pointed out that 300,000,000K isn't cold.
You said "If producing fusion was only a matter of producing the required high temperature it would be easy peasy presumably it would be happening all the time within the CRT of my old TV."
and that was wrong too.
And you said"What is required is a product of temperature and density for a sufficient time."
so I pointed out that it has plenty of time (unlike an A bomb) and quite a high density.

So, the last thing to address is where you say
"but it is not what most people think of as nuclear fusion. "
Well, it does do nuclear fusion.
It's difficult to see why "most people" wouldn't think of that as nuclear fusion.
Bored chemist, Sat, 15th Mar 2014

I suppose I am the only person who when they hear nuclear fusion referred to think of devices like the ITER or Nuclear bombs while most people think of neutron generating tubes.  syhprum, Sun, 16th Mar 2014

I rather suspect that most people have never heard of ITER.
The fusion reactor that most people know of is the Sun, and I doubt many people think of that as a fusion reactor very often.
An H bomb does fusion. so does ITER. So does the Sun. So does the item in the OP.

At best you have pointed out that most people have a poor understanding of nuclear fusion.
Most people have no sensible idea of, for example, how a mass spectrometer works.
This makes no difference to the fact that mass specs exist, and do mass spectroscopy.

Bored chemist, Sun, 16th Mar 2014

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