PROFILE — Kids win $5,200 for designing self-heating life-jacket

Published 2023-01-09 07:00

Idea came after kid capsized while sailing

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Liam Pope-Lau and Fraser Tuck


Victoria, British Columbia



Claim to Fame:

When Liam Pope-Lau fell into the ocean during a sailing lesson, he had no idea what he was in for.

“I just remember how cold it was,” said Liam in an interview with CBC Kids News.

“It really kind of scared me and shook me up.”

Thankfully, he was wearing a life-jacket, but the water was freezing.

Liam’s scary experience inspired him to team up with his friend, Fraser Tuck, in his Grade 6 science class at the time.

Together they came up with the idea of “LifeHeat” —  a self-heating life-jacket that could one day help someone in a similar situation.

The students, who are now in Grade 8, have been working together on the project for the last two years, entering their many prototypes into several science competitions.

They recently won their biggest achievement yet.

In November last year, Liam and Fraser won both the Innovator of the Year and People’s Choice awards at the B.C. Youth Innovation Showcase (YIS), hosted by B.C. Science Fairs.

They received prizes of $5,200 cash, which they said they will put towards patenting their idea.

The origin of LifeHeat

After accidentally falling into the freezing ocean, Liam was shocked by the drastic change in temperature.

He said he still remembers how it impacted his ability to make decisions in that moment.

“You feel so surprised,” said Liam.

“Then you go into a little bit of a panic mode just not sure what to do.”

The experience left him wondering if he could create something that could help people stay warm in water-related accidents.

The following spring, Liam partnered with Fraser for a class science project.

They wanted to find a chemical that creates heat upon contact with water. 

After a series of investigations, Liam and Fraser came across calcium chloride – a chemical often used to melt snow and ice from sidewalks and driveways.

It soon became LifeHeat’s primary chemical component, which allowed the vest to remain warm underwater.

Two teenage boys mix chemicals in a living room in clear metal bowls.

Fraser, left, and Liam spent a lot of time experimenting with different materials to create the pouch, which contains LifeHeat’s chemical component. (Image submitted by Naomi Pope)

In an interview with CBC Kids News, Fraser agreed that he and Liam have a special way of figuring out how to solve complex scientific problems.

“I feel like when we get [at] a problem together, we’ll try to use our strengths to tackle [it] a bit differently than the other person might,” he said.

Building the prototype

Over the next two years, Fraser and Liam built 13 prototypes of LifeHeat.

But instead of building multiple life-jackets from scratch, the two focused on creating an attachable pouch. When the pouch came in contact with water, it could heat the body’s core.

For each prototype, Liam and Fraser experimented with different materials that could contain calcium chloride while still allowing its heat to escape.

The different periods of trial-and-error forced them to get creative.

“For our first prototype, we didn't really think the heat would get through, so we used a sock,” said Liam.

Liam and Fraser have yet to secure a full patent for their invention, so CBC Kids News has opted not to disclose the materials they used for their winning prototype.

Testing it out in the water

Last year, Fraser and Liam decided to self-test their invention by jumping into the ocean.

Their first attempt did not go as planned.

“We put in a little bit extra calcium chloride than we probably normally would have,” said Liam.

“We were starting to overheat!”

While it wasn’t the outcome they expected, the experience made Liam and Fraser feel hopeful.

“We were like,  ‘This works!’” said Liam. “It really set us on a challenge to complete it.”

The future of LifeHeat

Winning the Innovator of the Year and People’s Choice Award from B.C. Science Fairs was a special moment for Liam and Fraser.

“Back then, we were like, ‘Yay, we won an award. That's amazing!’” said Fraser, “Now it's like, ‘Where can we go from this award?’”

The YIS encourages kids to explore creative ways to solve everyday challenges and to see how their theoretical solutions can become real-world change. Finalists have the opportunity to pitch their ideas and receive feedback from experts.

Liam and Fraser are now taking the feedback they received from experts and applying it to their next prototype.

After that, Liam and Fraser hope to turn their invention into a business.

“We hope this product can go into big fleets, like a cruise ship, BC Ferries or even maybe the navy,” said Fraser.

Two teenage boys wearing blue life vests jump into the water.

The two students took their testing phase to the next level by jumping into the ocean at the Oak Bay Marina. (Images submitted by Naomi Pope)

As for future inventors, Fraser and Liam have advice for kids who want to create their own new technology.

“Don’t be afraid to try it out because you never know where it could end up,” said Liam.

“Go for it before someone else can steal your idea,” added Fraser with a laugh.

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