Teen Engineer Makes Nuclear Breakthrough

Published: 17 Jun 2013

Nuclear power plants could be in for a major redesign thanks into the innovative ideas of teenager Taylor Wilson. Wilson first made his mark on the world of science and nuclear engineering after becoming the youngest person ever to build a working fusion reactor, aged just fourteen. Five years later, he’s developed a modular fission reactor which offers several significant improvements on the traditional nuclear reactor solutions which are currently in use around the globe.

Nuclear power plants currently supply approximately 10% of the world’s electricity, via over 400 power stations. The electricity itself is produced using a steam turbine method, with nuclear fission releasing atom energy and bringing water to the boil. The steam from the water is then used to drive turbines and create electricity.

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Speaking at a recent Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference, Wilson described his vision for a safer and more efficient type of reactor, by means of harnessing nuclear fission technology. Despite being just nineteen years of age, Wilson’s fission reactor design takes a pioneering approach to producing electricity which could, in time, offer a “source of energy that provides carbon-free electricity”. Here’s a brief overview of what the fission reactor design entails:

  • Operating at between 600-700 degrees Celsius, Wilson’s fission reactor design is 45-50% efficient, according to the laws of thermodynamics. This is a significant improvement on the technology which is currently in use, where lower temperatures only allow steam turbines to operate at around 30-35% efficiency.
  • Rather than boiling water, Wilson’s fission reactor uses a molten salt reactor to heat up gas. To achieve this, it swaps the uranium dioxide fuel rods encased in zirconium (as used in traditional methods of nuclear fusion) for highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium which has been downblended. In other words, the fission reactor could be fuelled by the huge collection of secured nuclear weapons which have not been intended for use since the cold war.             
  • Fission power plants could also help to reduce nuclear waste. Traditional nuclear reactors have a fuel cycle of around 18 months before the fuel rod must be replaced, whilst 'spent' fuel rods can remain radioactive for up to a million years. The fission reactor, on the other hand, only needs to be refuelled once every 30 years.
  • Wilson’s design is also much smaller than traditional reactors, allowing them to be buried below ground level. Not only is such a concept likely to prove popular with security advocates, but it also increases the safety levels of nuclear operations.

According to Wilson, his idea not only has the potential to reduce the cost of power and combat climate change, but it may also have an impact within the aerospace industry. As a small, safe and cost-effective source of fuel, the fission reactors could prove ideal for powering spaceships and rockets. Meanwhile, this smaller, safer, more efficient and less expensive reactor design could certainly transform the nuclear energy sector – a testament to the impact of on-going innovation within the industry.


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