20 People to Watch - Chad Ramey: The maker

The 19-year-old Georgia Tech student keeps busy building atom smashers, mixing music

When Chad Ramey talks about intimidating topics such as “pure mass to energy conversion” or the inner-workings of the Segway he built last year, somehow they all seem to make sense. That’s his gift of gab: Tech talk that even the lamest of laymen’s ears can comprehend. The 19-year-old Georgia Tech computer science major (with an emphasis on IT and human-machine interface) already has an impressive list of inventions under his belt, not the least of which is the inertial electrostatic confinement fusion reactor, or IEC fusor for short, that he built in high school. In a nutshell, it’s an atom smasher, and to the best of his knowledge, it’s the smallest operational fusion reactor that’s ever been built by an amateur. That’s quite an accomplishment, but as part of the burgeoning maker movement, it’s all part of a day in the life for Ramey.

The maker movement is the technology world’s take on the farm-to-table movement, bridging the gap between the producer and the consumer. “It’s sort of a cross between crafting and engineering,” Ramey explains. “It’s important because it is once again establishing a linkage between the products we buy and how they are made, and a lot of this creative engineering that normal people are doing ends up creating a lot of new technologies. The maker movement is establishing a norm for the average person to tinker, and when enough average people start to tinker, you end up with a lot of unique innovations.”

After an internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2012, he worked on the next generation of Mars rovers, or SEVs (Surface Exploration Vehicle). He has also been trying to work the bugs out of his Segway. He originally created it as a more efficient way to move across campus than just walking. But since the Segway never won any awards in the hip department (its speed topped out at only 12 mph), Ramey has switched his focus to creating a laser-cut, electric longboard — a skateboard propelled by a custom battery pack — to get him to class with a little more style. Even though the Segway project didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped, he values the knowledge and experience he gained from the process. “It taught me a lot about machining and programming,” Ramey says. “It was more or less the first thing I made at Tech.”

Ramey is also a musician of sorts, counting guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo among his instruments of choice. He dabbles in piano and keyboard, as well as computer music software such as Ableton and Reason. Over the holiday break, Ramey spent time using an Xbox Kinect and Ableton to create music based on body movements. He’s working on a track car specifically built for drifting, as in The Fast and the Furious. He’s also recently developed an obsession with 3-D printing — creating solid objects based on a digital model, like the replicator in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“I generally think that both intellect as well as motivation are a matter of choice and sometimes even a matter of environment,” Ramey says. “I don’t think I would have classified myself as ‘intelligent’ until I became really interested in nuclear physics and started making things. Once I found out that science interested me and that I could do things with it, I was motivated to learn and actually do stuff.”