Science Fair: Teen builds nuclear fusion reactor in his basement

Caleb Winder, 15, poses with a nuclear fusion reactor he’s entering in this year’s Lambton County Science Fair, April 10-11 at Lambton College. George Mathewson

George Mathewson

In the basement of a suburban Camlachie home, Caleb Winder is recreating the internal workings of the sun.

With a little deuterium, a vacuum chamber and 35,000 volts of electricity, the 15-year-old has built a nuclear fusion reactor that he’s entering in the Lambton County Science Fair.

Winder culled the reactor’s parts from eBay, hardware stores and obscure websites frequented by retired nuclear engineers, and the thing is driven by a dental X-ray power pack he scrounged and keeps in the garage.

The reactor isn’t working this day, a wire having shorted out in a shower of sparks. Lead shielding provides protection from what Winder assures a visitor is “not very much” radiation.

“On earth, there are very few ways of sustaining a nuclear fusion reaction,” explains the St. Clair Secondary student.

“It’s cool on its own, but the neutrons produced can be used for radio isotopes in medical treatment.”

This year’s science fair is April 10-11 at Lambton College with more than $7,000 in prizes up for grabs.

“Winning prizes is cool, but the science itself is fun,” says Winder, who is also a good athlete. “It’s a great experience and I would recommend it to anyone.”

The best projects from the senior and intermediate categories advance to the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Fredericton NB, in May. The local fair organization covers all expenses for up to five students to attend, and provides chaperones to ensure their safety.

Sarnia has a robust science fair thanks to more than 30 sponsors, including individuals, organizations and a veritable who’s who of Chemical Valley companies.

“There’s a good science background in this area,” said fair spokesperson Peter Smith. “With the Valley, there’s lots of engineers, and their children pick up on that.”

Last year, in Grade 9, Winder advanced to the national fair with a small prototype of this year’s project and brought home a bronze prize, a telescope and a scholarship to Western University.

Parents Matt and Deb Winder say their son comes by it naturally. To make the point, mom produces his Kindergarten journal.

There amid crayon drawings of satellites and robots, five-year-old Caleb has scribbled the words: “The sun is made out of nuclear fusion.”

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: Lambton County Science Fair

WHERE: Lambton College gymnasium

WHEN: Friday, April 10, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 11, 9 a.m. to 12 noon.