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Scientific Forum 2015: Fusion Wunderkind Taylor Wilson Gives Us His Take on How Nuclear Technology Can Improve Lives

(Photo credit: James Duncan Davidson/TED)

Taylor Wilson strongly believes in the bright future of nuclear technology. The 21-year-old nuclear physicist from Arkansas, U.S., fell in love with nuclear science when he was just 10, and has not stopped exploring it ever since.

In 2009, at age 14, Taylor wowed the world when he became the youngest person ever to work with nuclear fusion. He went on to develop several innovations in the field of nuclear energy.

Taylor, who will be a keynote speaker during the opening session of next week’s IAEA Scientific Forum entitled “Atoms in Industry. Radiation Technology for Development”, believes that nuclear science and technology can change the world for the better and can dramatically improve many aspects of people’s lives, especially in developing countries. In responding to questions from the IAEA, he told us how nuclear power can be made safer and more secure, and why young people should study science.  

What inspired you to experiment with such a complex technology at such an early age? And what gave you the confidence to do it?

When I started studying nuclear science at the age of 10, I was so intrigued by the fundamental make-up and nature of the universe around us, and was fascinated by the ability to probe it on such a small scale. I realized what a powerful tool this understanding could represent in many different applications and I haven’t stopped exploring since. I’ve always really enjoyed a challenge and when I was 14, there was no better challenge than nuclear fusion. But for me, producing nuclear fusion was just kind of a stepping-stone to bigger and better experiments and projects, and hopefully using what I learned to invent new things and make the world a better place.

What would you tell people to help demystify radioactivity and help them to better understand the positive impacts of nuclear technology?

Radioactivity and ionizing radiation hold a special place in the cultural psyche, really unlike any other technology or field. Most of this mystery comes from a lack of understanding of the way in which these invisible forces and processes work, outside of traditional images of mushroom clouds and hyperbolic cooling towers.

Certainly nuclear technologies have more than their fair share of dangers, which most people are familiar with, but all technology is not created equal, and most are unaware that nuclear techniques in medicine save countless lives every year, that radiation processing techniques prevent the use of environmentally harmful chemicals, and that nuclear power represents one of the most important power sources for reducing society’s [carbon] emissions from the production of electricity.

It is difficult to inspire young people to go into science, especially young women and girls. What would you tell them?

If you want to change the world, and change the world for the better, consider a career in the sciences. Science and engineering represent the most powerful tools we as a species possess for changing the lives of the people around us.

The process of science – asking questions, conducting experiments – is what we are all naturally born to do as children. Those people who retain that curiosity and make a career out of it are scientists, people who give our species the greatest insight about our place in the cosmos. These are the people who most radically change the world, making it a better, safer place to live and giving us opportunities that we couldn’t have even remotely imagined before their invention. Science is a field that values diversity; diverse opinions, mind-sets, backgrounds, and skills, and the more we find young people of all genders and backgrounds choosing science and technology as a career, the more innovative our thinking will become. Young people, and especially young girls, need role models and experiences with people who chose science as a career, and the more we open the doors to our labs and the more popular-culture highlights the successes of scientists and technologists, the better the future that will lie ahead for all of us.

You said nuclear can be used for good and bad and you want to help prevent the bad and enhance the good. How?

The best way to ensure we accomplish these goals is to use the most basic rules of our natural universe: physics. If we use physics principles to reduce the half-lives of radioactive waste, eliminate weapons-usable fissile material, and contain nuclear processes, we can take the human element out of the equation. These so called passively safe and secure technologies mean we dramatically enhance and expand the use of the peaceful atom while eliminating the risk from accidents or misuse. I really hope I can contribute not only to improving quality of life throughout the world through the spread of peaceful nuclear technologies, but also contribute to the safety and security of the world through promoting nuclear security and providing technology that aids in non-proliferation efforts.

You are going to speak during the opening session of the IAEA Scientific Forum next week on radiation technology applications in industry. What do you see as the most exciting nuclear technology applications?

A lot of my efforts have been in medical and energy applications, but for me radiation technologies are incredibly interesting and I’ve spent quite a bit of time working in this area. Like most of my projects, this research actually was born out of fundamental scientific investigations in radiation chemistry and materials science, and from studying these basic processes spun off technologies that are really novel and transformative. Some of these projects include very twenty first century applications of radiation technology including the fabrication and synthesis of nanomaterials and nanostructures like graphene. The applications of these materials are endless, and by using radiation, we are able to produce materials faster, cheaper, in a more environmentally friendly manner, and even in some cases for the first time.

How do you see the future of nuclear power and technology?

The future of nuclear technology is bright. It remains one of the most powerful tools we have discovered for the generation of electricity, seeing things invisible to the human eye, and for combating disease and suffering, but it is also a field that has so much room for innovation.

Personally a lot of my work seeks to transform nuclear power technologies, making them safer and less expensive, while dramatically increasing their roles, making them smaller, producing an entire passively and integrally safe power plant in a factory, and using these technologies in wide ranging applications from distributed power generation and water desalination to chemical processing and spaceflight, while at the same time reducing the industrialized world’s emissions in a truly scalable way. In the developed world we can reduce the cost of energy, while bringing energy to parts of the developing world for the first time. The same goes for medical applications of nuclear technology; not only creating new therapeutic and diagnostic techniques for eradicating disease, but expanding access to these techniques throughout the world and to areas where they were previously inaccessible by dramatically reducing the cost and size of the enabling technologies.

Finally I like to tell people my final frontier is the Final Frontier: Outer Space. New Horizons, NASA’s first probe to the body Pluto, was powered by a radioisotope power source fuelled with Plutonium-238, and while it may have been the farthest destination yet, this mission is just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly, nuclear technology will give us the capability to explore our solar system and beyond in ways not possible using traditional chemical fuels, and this, for me, is one of the most exciting frontiers for nuclear technology.

Last update: 4 September 2017

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