‘A fuel for the future’

National science fair silver medalist believes novel nuclear fusion reaction may be key to affordable energy

Published on May 21, 2014
NRHS Grade 10 student James Lees of Merigomish recently won a silver medal in the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Windsor.

James Lees is no average Grade 10 student. 

Sure he gets up, goes to school, attends class and does homework. But after that it gets a little complicated. He’s working to build a nuclear fusion reactor that, if successful, could solve the world’s energy crisis.

Despite still having a long way to go to see his dream realized, Lees’ idea is starting to turn heads on a national and international level.

The Northumberland Regional High School student who lives near Merigomish won a silver medal in the Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF) in Windsor. No small feat, considering he was pitted against 500 of the nation’s brightest upcoming scientists.

“There were around 300 judges, which included engineers from Rolls-Royce and Chrysler,” said Lees.

Just weeks before, he had won second place in the CCRSB Regional Science Fair, earning a second place spot and awards for most original project and best application of the scientific method.

In Windsor, he was invited by a delegation of Australian students to go ‘down under’ this January to the Australian National Youth Science Forum.

It’s all thanks to his project ‘F.E.R.E.C: A Fuel for the Future’, an idea that started over two years ago when he heard about Taylor Wilson, a 20-year-old nuclear scientist who fused the atom at age 14. 

“His work and story made me want to research this,” said Lees. “So I started with planning and calculations for a nuclear fusion reactor.”

He hypothesized that enough x-ray lasers could generate enough power for nuclear fusion but he realized the number of lasers to start the reaction would be unfeasible. Coming up with these kind of ideas and then disproving them isn’t on the typical high school curriculum.

“I’d say 95 per cent of what I’ve learned has been self taught. Because of the nature of these kind of projects, it’s not possible to put them together outside a lab.”

When you’re talking about nuclear fusion, that’s a comforting thought.

But what Lees is looking into, and what the bulk of his project dealt with, was an idea for an electrostatic Tungsten grid coupled with an electro magnetic field to compress plasma beyond critical density for fusion to take place.

According to Lees, with more research to be done, he believes that a 2, 353 mega watt power plant – the same size as the fourth largest hydroelectric power plant in the United States – could fit into an area the size of a school bus.

“Using seawater, which produces deuterium, and tritium, it’s possible,” he said.

If he’s right, the real world application of his nuclear fusion reactor would mean affordable energy that could be used across the world.

“For Pictou County, I would see two small reactors. That way another reactor can come online when the others’ fuel is spent.”

As far as risks, Lees believes that his reactor is inherently safer than traditional nuclear reactors. With this in mind, he’s hoping to acquire university or corporate sponsors to continue his work. If funding is secured, he could even have a prototype reactor by this fall, in time for an international science fair.

The cost? About $7,000 for the smallest model.

“I want to get things going so I can see how it can be made better and more efficient,” said Lees.

Other Nova Scotian up-and-coming scientists were honoured at CWSF. Students took home one gold, six silver and 11 bronze medals along with other awards for their scientific and technological achievements. The national winner was a student from Ottawa who devised a low cost, high-resolution 3D medical scanner to cut the costs of prosthetic limbs and assist amputees.



On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn