The Atomic Boy Wonder - Trailblazer Week

By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Taylor Wilson.

Taylor Wilson built a nuclear fusor in his garage and gave a TED talk about it. He gave a second TED talk about re-imagining and perfecting nuclear fission, to create safe reactors that could power an entire nation cheaply for years.

It would also be carbon free energy, reducing emissions, and helping to combat climate change. He has offered safe alternatives to energy mining like deep sea drilling and fracking, which, as we have seen, can have devastating effects on an ecosystem.

Oh, and he just graduated high school.

Taylor Wilson is not your typical teenager. He was 14 when he successfully created nuclear fusion, which makes him the youngest person to do it. On top of that he was the 31st person in the world to do it privately, outside of a cooperation or government agency. He has become a pioneer of nuclear innovation and has done so against all expectations.

“I think I can swing it out with the big boys, so I never really viewed age as an issue. I got into this at a really young age and, honestly, I’ve had as much experience as people who are well into their professional careers,” Wilson tells BTR. While Wilson has had to deal with the prejudice against his age and inexperience, Wilson is confident that his work speaks for itself. And his work consists mainly of trying to help saving an changing lives.

After Wilson successfully created nuclear fusion, his next step was developing radiological detecting systems. Current detectors utilize a very rare version of helium called helium 3. The atom itself is a byproduct of another compound called tritium. You can only get helium 3 when this material begins to decay, and the US stopped producing tritium in 1989. Wilson saw this as a problem, so instead he decided to use the most abundant molecule on the planet: water.

Wilson’s water-based detector is currently being patented and is of great interest to the offices of Homeland Security and TSA officials; especially considering that the current detectors cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Wilson’s technique cost less than most laptops.

Taylor Wilson presenting his fusor work to Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After finding a new way to protect the United States from a domestically detonated nuclear device Wilson was looking for his next challenge: medicine. He went on to develop cheaper and more efficient ways of developing medical isotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Wilson modestly recounts these milestones and is pleased with how many lives will be save because of his work. These are accomplishments that would make anyone proud after a long career in nuclear technologies… but Wilson is just getting started.

“I got to a point where after developing all these technologies and getting patents, essentially commercializing them and getting them ready to bring them to market, I realized I wanted to work on something that would fundamentally change the course of human history, which, in my opinion, would be solving the problem of energy. All of our problems come down to having a stable, clean, reliable and cheap source of energy,” Wilson explains.

Accepting that nuclear fusion, his main focus since he was 10, was really decades away from being a viable energy option Wilson began to rethink the wheel. That wheel being the traditional way of creating electricity for nuclear fission.

In Taylor’s second TED Talk, he discussed how to optimize nuclear fission, an older nuclear process that is still based on turbine technology to create electricity. It is also a technology that has significant vulnerabilities, leading to accidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Isalnd, and most recently, the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan. So, can Wilson really create a safe form of nuclear power? You bet.

“Fukushima showed what can happen. Admittedly in a very worst case scenario, but there is [currently] always that possibility for something really really bad to happen. But I had an idea in my head of how you could do [fission], but perfect it and remove all the possibility of accidents or release of radioactive material,” says Wilson.

So far, of all his accomplishments, Wilson is most proud of his prospective nuclear fission reactors. Without getting too technical, these reactors are a sealed system, can go in the ground, and do not require weapons grade material in order to function.

In fact, what Wilson says these reactors love is down blended cores of old nuclear weapons, where the cores are diluted to a safe level and can be used to power thousands of homes for years while simultaneously removing a weapon of mass destruction from the world. It is almost ironic that the future of nuclear power in our society would be built out of the very weapons that once threatened our very existence.

“I’ve always looked at as nuclear energy, especially nuclear fission, needing a redemption. We spent our first 50 years with this technology under the veil of nuclear attack and nuclear accidents. A lot of people, probably falsely, but they do make the connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, even though the technology is different and the threats are different.”

When Wilson is not busy trying to perfect fission, when he is not busy developing technologies that will save lives. When he is not too busy turning down offers from MIT and other universities, Wilson enjoys hunting for radioactive material in the desert and spending time with his friends.

When asked about his preference between Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, he is loyal to the original Star Trek, and hopes that one day his nuclear reactors will power of the first spaceships to colonize Mars.

In the meantime, he’ll just have to settle for saving this world first.