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Meet the 14-year-old boy trying to build a nuclear reactor in his shed in Mayo

No, seriously. And if it works, it could be a whole new way of generating power.

Tom with Dr Patrick McCarthy at the Department of Physics at UCC
Tom with Dr Patrick McCarthy at the Department of Physics at UCC
Image: Tom McCarthy

TOM MCCARTHY, A 14-year-old from Mayo, is describing the reaction he typically gets when he tells people how he’s trying to build a nuclear fusion reactor in his parents’ shed.

“People kind of look at me for a few seconds,” he says.  ”Some people will just say ‘ah yeah’ and will take it seriously. Actually, most people do, they just sometimes need a bit of convincing”.

“But then some people just look at me and think they should be ringing the local psychiatrist or whatever”.

Perhaps one of the best things about being a teenager is being able to spend as much as much time as you want doing the things that you love. For Tom, this has been science – and particularly physics – for as long as he can remember.

Building the reactor isn’t some kind of far-fetched never-going-to-happen dream, however. The type of reactor Tom wants to build has already been done by other people (although as he notes, “building one on my own is somewhat like someone climbing Mount Everest – it has been done before but not by many people”).

For him, the goal is straightforward: he wants to develop a new way of generating power without all the risks associated with nuclear.

Source: Tom McCarthy/Vimeo

He first had the idea to build the mini reactor just over one year ago when he came across a video of a US teenager called Taylor Wilson who built what’s known as a fusor – a kind of small nuclear reactor which shows that fusion is happening and which would fit comfortably inside a room.

“Seeing this other 14-year-old who was able to build it, I thought ‘why can’t I do this?’,” Tom tells TheJournal.ie. 

He started kicking around idea on how he was going to get started with the fusor, spending hours researching the equipment, the mechanics and the key concepts. With several months of free time looming, he figured he was ready to start actually constructing it.

The most important things? Money – and getting his parents on board.

“Getting my mam and dad involved was the most important thing at the start,” he says.

I had to tell them that I wasn’t going to blow up the town.

After that, he got help from his uncle, who is a professor of biochemistry in UCC, who helped him put together a proposal and put him in touch with other people who could help him out.

The next thing was the money. “I thought maybe I’d be able to do it for about €3,000 and I could possibly ask my parents to help and fundraise the rest myself, but then I realised the less money I have, the longer it’s going to take,” he explains.

Instead, he has turned to crowdfunding, asking people to donate to his research. “If I can raise €10,000, I can just go to companies and on eBay and get the pieces that I need and not scrounge around for pieces to do it”.

That’s the how – now the why

If you’re imaging a mini nuclear plant running in a Mayo shed, think slightly smaller.

Tom’s plan is two-fold. Firstly he wants to do research into a topic called bremsstrahlung, which hasn’t been the subject of much study yet. This, he thinks, could end up as an entry in the BT Young Scientist Competition next year.

The other idea is bigger though: while the fusor shows nuclear fusion taking place, he wants to look at whether it could eventually be used to generate power. In other words, it would be nuclear power but without all the current risks.

“People aren’t too crazy about nuclear power currently, especially after events like Fukushima and Chernobyl,” he explains.

But the method that I want to develop would mean nuclear power with no waste and no risk of explosion or radiation fall-out.

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Tom wants to see if the fusor can be expanded into a power generating system called a sub-critical generator. He stresses that this isn’t some kind of hypothetical scenario – it hasn’t been constructed before, but the designs are considered safer than current fission designs.

What next? 

Tom has already raised €2,500 in his own money, and has more than €1,000 pledged in donations on his crowdfunding page.  He plans to work on the fusor over the summer – he has just finished 2nd year in St Gerald’s in Castlebar – but it depends on how much money he raises.

“I can do it for less than €10,000, it’ll just take a long time. If I get to €6,000, I’ll just drive ahead and do as much as possible”.

So where do you go after building your own nuclear reactor? Tom hopes to study pure maths at third-level when he finishes school, or possibly theoretical physics.

If he makes the fusor, he will put it up on his website and he hopes to get some colleges allow him to come in for presentations about his work.

“I’d say they could be interested,” he says. “You don’t get many people building nuclear fusion reactors in their shed”.

If you want to help Tom out, you can donate on his crowdfunding page

Opinion: Nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest and cheapest – why do we continue to reject it? > 

Read: These shots reveal just how desolate Fukushima is now > 

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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