Profiles: Taylor Wilson
Illustrated by ALEXANDRE MARINI
Ted Talk 2013, Taylor Wilson, 19 years old: “My Radical Plan for Small Nuclear Fission Reactors”.
“I started out with a dream to make a star in a jar, and I ended up … making things that I think can change the world.” – Taylor Wilson
At the age of 12, Taylor Wilson decided he would create a star. From that point on, he embarked on his journey to become one of the brightest and most promising young scientists of our generation and is currently renowned across the global scientific community for being the youngest person to successfully build a nuclear fusion reactor when he was only 14 years old, and this with only the initial means of his parents’ garage. Since then, Taylor’s main focus in his most recent research has been on the reverse process of fusion: nuclear fission. But what exactly is nuclear fission?
According to nuclear physicists and chemists, the term refers to a reaction in which nuclei are formed in a particle after the division of the nucleus into smaller parts. This process often releases a great amount of energy both as electromagnetic radiation or kinetic energy of the fragments, but also produces a large amount of free neutrons. When the fission occurs, nuclear fuels – fuel or physical objects that are composed of fuel material – are burnt due to the release of the fission neutrons, which permits the production of energy for nuclear power. The energy released by the fission of nuclear fuel can be equivalent to millions of times higher than the energy contained in other fuels such as gasoline, thus making it a remarkable means for the creation of a nuclear weapon or reactor. The fragments and products released in the process, however, are a major concern as they are considerably more radioactive than the remains of normal fuel fission. This concern reaffirms the current problem of nuclear waste that has become increasingly concerning due to many nations’ development of nuclear weapons in the past century. Needless to say the accumulation of nuclear waste poses a serious threat to the health of most forms of life, or even the entire ecosystem in which it is found, and remains an important issue in current debates on nuclear power.
This phenomenon certainly caught Taylor’s attention as he dove deeper and deeper into the world of nuclear physics, pushing him to eventually innovate the “Small Modular Fission Reactors.” As he explains in his Ted Talk “My Radical Plan for Small Nuclear Fission Reactors,” his reactors are far more convenient and safer on an anti-terrorism stance due to their relatively small size, but mostly due to the fact that they can be installed three meters underground, which is very important for proliferation and security concerns.
However, the primary focus of his research is on the new ways to develop more secure and reliable sources of energy. Because the reactors are filled with molten-salt, they have the ability to burn uranium-233, also known as the thorium fuel cycle, which is often used in nuclear reactors but also found in the waste of those many nuclear weapons built up mostly during the Cold War. Additionally, unlike traditional fission reactors (or nuclear power plants, as some may call them), this cycle can last for only 18 months without being refuelled. Wilson’s small modular reactors can run for thirty years as a sealed or closed system, thus greatly reducing the risks of proliferation of nuclear material or radiological material produced by the burning of the uranium.
From a safety point of view, as Wilson explains, these reactors are quite impressive, as they operate at essentially atmospheric pressure, so the chances of an escape of fission products in the occurrence of an accident are quite small. They also run on high temperatures since they melt fuel; thus the reactors cannot melt down, and also have a dump tank that permits the draining of any radioactive fuel in the case of a power-outage – as in the case of Fukushima – or an exceeding of the reactor’s fuel tolerances. This quality means that in the event of an accident, the reactor’s deficiencies will not cause the contamination of surrounding ecosystems.
This exciting and impressive innovation of Taylor’s is certainly not his only contribution to the modern scientific world. He also adds to his research checklist the development of revolutionary detectors for scanning cargo containers, which might as well be at the core of some of the most sophisticated counter-terrorism machinery for the American National Security, as well as his elaboration of systems of production of medical isotopes, i.e. small radioactive substances part of nuclear medicine that are used in procedures to facilitate an earlier and more complete disease diagnosis and thus more rapid and effective treatment.
Ultimately, at only 19 years old, Taylor Wilson has already been described by Forbes Magazine as “The Bill Gates of Energy" and remains one of the most innovative and ambitious scientists of our generation. While he simply started out with the crazy idea of creating a star in his parents’ garage, the recent high school graduate is a solemn proof of the increasingly recognized theory that kids can really change the world.
Anne-Marie and Justine
(Source: ted.com. You can view Taylor's full TED talk here.)