Taylor Wilson: What Does It Take To Produce Nuclear Fusion — In Your Garage? Taylor Wilson is a self-taught nuclear physicist who sees every obstacle as a challenge. He describes how — at age 14 — he built a working nuclear fusion reactor in his garage.

What Does It Take To Produce Nuclear Fusion — In Your Garage?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and our show today, "Amateur Hour," ideas about jumping into the unknown and just kind of figuring it out.

TAYLOR WILSON: My name is Taylor Wilson. I am 21 years old and I am an applied nuclear physicist.

RAZ: OK, that's weird.

WILSON: Sure, sure. But you know, I've been doing it half my life now, so it doesn't seem that weird to me.

RAZ: Fifty percent of your life, since you were...

WILSON: Ten years old, yeah.

RAZ: Wow. You've been a nuclear physicist since you were 10?

WILSON: Well, that's when the spark hit me, so I've been working on it since.

RAZ: OK, just a quick pause here to explain that Taylor never got a college degree. He's never published a peer-reviewed journal article. He is completely self-taught. And, at least when he first got into this stuff, a complete amateur.

WILSON: You know, I realized that, you know, there was this field where people were basically manipulating atoms, you know, smashing them apart, combining them, using them for all these different things, and I thought, well, that sounds like fun. And then I realized I could do it, and that was the best part of all. You know, it's something I could kind of play around with in my garage.

RAZ: To be precise, in his parents' garage.

WILSON: Somewhere along that road I decided I wanted to build a nuclear reactor, and so I was the youngest person to produce nuclear fusion when I turned 14 and then...

RAZ: OK so in case you just missed that, Taylor, at age 14, became the youngest person in history to produce nuclear fusion.

WILSON: Fusion is the process that goes on inside the sun, inside all the stars in the universe around us, and it's basically taking very light, fundamental atoms - things like hydrogen, helium - and fusing them together into bigger elements.

RAZ: And Taylor achieved this by building his own nuclear reactor, which he described on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILSON: And I assembled this in my garage, and it now lives in the physics department at the University of Nevada, Reno. And it slams together deuterium, which is just hydrogen with an extra neutron in it. So this is the - similar to the reaction, the proton chain that's going on inside the sun. And I'm slamming it together so hard that that hydrogen fuses together.

And the mass difference in those reactions is the energy produced.

RAZ: At this point you might be asking, how'd he do that in his parents' garage? And the answer - as you might have guessed - began by searching the Internet.

WILSON: You know, I was an email away from basically any physicist, professor throughout the world, you know, that if I had a question, I could shoot off an email to one of those contacts.

RAZ: In the meantime, Taylor started gathering anything radioactive he could get his hands on.

WILSON: All kinds of things. You know, your smoke detector has americium in it - an artificial element that doesn't occur naturally on Earth - and it uses the radiation to detect smoke.

RAZ: He picked up some old radium alarm clocks because - who knew - they have small amounts of radioactive material on the dial faces, which is what makes them glow. And he even found what he needed in dishes.

WILSON: Fiestaware plates - the old orange, red Fiestaware plates that have uranium on them.

RAZ: Really?

WILSON: Oh, yeah. You know, the collection slowly got more and more advanced as I got things like, you know, nuclear fuel pellets. And at some point what I started doing was I'd go out in the desert and I would dig up a bunch of uranium ore and bring it in the garage process yellowcake out of it.

RAZ: I thought you could only get that from Saddam Hussein.

WILSON: (Laughter). I mean, not really, but, you know. But, you know, at some point I wasn't satisfied with that. I wasn't satisfied with, you know, collecting and building up things that were already radioactive, or, you know, naturally going through these nuclear reactions, you know? I wanted to make my own nuclear reactions. And to do that, I realized the easiest way to do it would be to produce nuclear fusion, build a nuclear fusion reactor.

RAZ: Slowly, Taylor started to get some vacuum chambers, pumps, parts he'd pick up from Home Depot.

WILSON: From industry, from government labs, all these different places. I remember one Christmas, I got the fuel for the reactor under the Christmas tree, which was the deuterium, the heavy hydrogen fuel.

RAZ: Wow. That was under the Christmas tree?

WILSON: I asked for that for Christmas one year.

RAZ: Like, wrapped with a ribbon?

WILSON: Yeah, yup, yup.

RAZ: Here you go, some nuclear fuel.

WILSON: There you go.

RAZ: So by around early 2009, Taylor finally finished building his reactor. And don't picture, like, Three Mile Island. It actually looks like a Xerox machine from the '70s with a bunch of wires and pumps and tubes coming out of it.

WILSON: What's called an inertial electrostatic confinement device, which basically means I was just using electricity, electrostatic potential, to confine ions. And you take in a little bit of fusion fuel, and you ionize it, you strip off the electrons.

RAZ: OK so fusion is basically what happens when a hydrogen bomb explodes. The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project were the first ones to achieve it back in 1951. But since then what no one has figured out is how to turn nuclear fusion into power like electricity.

WILSON: The holy grail for power production is fusion because fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste and the fuel is just abundant. Now, I think it's possible, and I think it'll be very economically competitive once we do it. It's just all the challenges to get there. And it may be something where we need a moonshot, or we may get the lucky donkey who's doing it in his small startup. We have to see what'll work, but I'm convinced we'll get there.

RAZ: So a world powered by nuclear fusion? For the moment, too challenging. So Taylor's decided to focus on something far easier, far simpler, and that would be nuclear fission. And just in case you overslept the day it was explained in high school, here is a quick primer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILSON: Let's talk a little bit about how nuclear fission works. In nuclear power plant, you have a big pot of water that's under high-pressure and you have some fuel rods. And a fission reaction heats up water. The water turns to steam. Steam turns the turbine and you produce electricity from it. This is the same way we've been producing electricity, the steam turbine idea, for a hundred years. And nuclear was a really big advancement and a way to heat the water, but you still boil water and that turns the steam and turns the turbine. And I thought, you know, is this the best way to do it? Is fission kind of played out, or is there something left to innovate here? And I realized that I'd hit upon something that, I think, has this huge potential to change the world. This is what it is. This is a small modular reactor, so it's not as big as the reactor you see in the diagram here. This is between 50 and 100 megawatts. But that's a ton of power.

RAZ: What Taylor's explaining here is that fission is basically what happens in a nuclear power plant. And about 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. is generated by nuclear power. But those power plants are inefficient and they create a whole bunch of nuclear waste. So Taylor's working on a new kind of fission reactor. It's small, it's twice as efficient, it could power up to 100,000 homes all without the pollution of fossil fuels.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILSON: That in the, say, 20 years it's going to take us to get fusion and make fusion a reality, this could be the source of energy that provides carbon-free electricity.

RAZ: Do you think that in some ways, like, not exactly knowing what you were doing when you started the process - like, definitely at first, I would imagine - do you think that in some ways, that was like - gave you an advantage, that you were almost so naive that you were, like, yeah, I could build a nuclear reactor?

WILSON: (Laughter) I think that, you know, people who have, you know, spent their professional careers in a field sometimes get bent to those preconceptions or the way things are done. And I think that young people don't necessarily develop those preconceptions, and so they just go out and do. And, you know, I didn't really know that, you know, this wasn't the way things were done, or, I wasn't convinced this is the way they should be done. And I think that's my personality. I try to fight against every obstacle that comes into my way and I've never let someone telling me no stop me, so to speak.

RAZ: I wonder if, like, now with all you know if there are things that you don't try anymore because - or you, like, limit yourself because you're just not an amateur anymore?

WILSON: Yeah, well, I mean I'll certainly say that I look back and sometimes I'm awestruck at how little I knew or, you know, things like that. But with that said, you know, one thing that, you know, I hope I never lose is that lack of preconceptions, right? I think that one - you know, that's the nice thing about physics. Physics tells you what you can and can't do. And, you know, if you know the physics, anything else is possible, whether it's, you know, physical concerns, engineering, materials - all these things are within the realm of possibility if you know what physics tells you can and can't do. And that's how I try to live my life and hopefully will continue to do so.

RAZ: Taylor Wilson, nuclear physicist. You can see both of his talks at ted.com.

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