US teen designs compact nuclear reactor

Mar 01, 2013
Barrels containing high level radioactive nuclear waste is stored in a pool in North England on September 26, 2002. Eighteen-year-old Taylor Wilson has designed a compact nuclear reactor that could one day burn waste from old atomic weapons to power anything from homes and factories to space colonies.

Eighteen-year-old Taylor Wilson has designed a compact nuclear reactor that could one day burn waste from old atomic weapons to power anything from homes and factories to space colonies.

The American teen, who gained fame four years ago after designing a he planned to build in the garage of his family's home, shared his latest endeavor at a in southern California on Thursday.

"It's about bringing something old, fission, into the 21st Century," Wilson said. "I think this has huge potential to change the world."

He has designed a small capable of generating 50-100 of electricity, enough to as many as 100,000 homes.

The reactor can be made assembly-line style and powered by molten radioactive material from nuclear weapons, Wilson said. The relatively small, modular reactor can be shipped sealed with enough fuel to last for 30 years.

"You can plop them down anywhere in the world and they work, buried under the ground for security reasons," he said, while detailing his design at TED.

"In the Cold War we built up this huge arsenal of nuclear weapons and we don't need them anymore," Wilson said. "It would be great if we could eat them up, and this reactor loves this stuff."

His reactors are designed to spin turbines using gas instead of steam, meaning they operate at temperatures lower than those of typical nuclear reactors and don't spew anything if there is a breach.

The fuel is in the form of , and the reactors don't need to be pressurized, according to the teenager.

"In the event of an accident, you can just drain the core into a tank under the reactor with neutron absorbers and the reaction stops," Wilson said.

"There is no inclination for the fission products to leave this reactor," he said. "In an accident, the reactor may be toast, which is sorry for the power company, but there is no problem."

Wilson, who graduated grade school in May, said he is putting off university to focus on a company he created to make Modular Fission Reactors.

He sees his competition as nations, particularly China, and the roadblocks ahead as political instead of technical.

Wilson planned to have a prototype ready in two years and a product to market in five years.

"Not only does it combat climate change, it can bring power to the developing world," Wilson said with teenage optimism.

"Imagine having a compact reactor in a rocket designed by those planning to habitat other planets. Not only would you have power for propulsion, but power once you get there."


TED Video - March 2012: Taylor Wilson: Yup, I built a nuclear fusion reactor

Explore further: Peugeot hybrid compressed-air car set for Paris Motor Show

More information: blog.ted.com/2013/02/27/good-e… r-wilson-at-ted2013/

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User comments : 46

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zapme
2.3 / 5 (6) Mar 01, 2013
thorium? ber derp. this article is non-specific
_ilbud
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 01, 2013
Balls
Arcbird
1 / 5 (8) Mar 01, 2013
Well, interesting, but lftr, which this basically is, has come a much further way, and there are still other power generation technologies that far exceeds that of fission that will prevail.
antialias_physorg
2.8 / 5 (16) Mar 01, 2013
While using up weapons-grade material is certainly better than simply dumping it somewhere I wouldn't be too thrilled with hundreds (or potentially thousands) of these reactors buried all over the place - no matter how passively safe they are.

Digging a hole and having such a reactor underground is only a very relative measure of security. I would bet that there would be at least a few in the more out-of-the-way places which would be dug up (or outright sold) to 'interested parties'.

And that's one Pandora's box we don't need to open at the moment.
Singularity24601
3.7 / 5 (9) Mar 01, 2013
The technology to do this has been available for decades. One reason this idea hasn't taken off much earlier is that it'll give everyone the ability to easily create a radiological "dirty bomb".
tscati
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 01, 2013
And what are you left with after 30 years? A box full of candy? Or a box full of radioactive waste that needs to be stored for 300 generations?
antialias_physorg
2.6 / 5 (15) Mar 01, 2013
And what are you left with after 30 years? A box full of candy?

Why, candy of course!
The local energy provider will conveniently go out of business a few days before expiration date. No one will feel responsible for the stuff - and people will just leave them dotted around the landscape because it's too expensive to dig up and store.

At least until the containment rots and the stuff leaks into the groundwater - but who cares about that?

Just being my regular, cynical self. I'm sure all companies all over the world will shun no cost to responsibly dispose of it.

Riiiiight.
krundoloss
1.8 / 5 (8) Mar 01, 2013
It is true that there are many wonderful things we can do with radioactive materials. They can provide power for years, batteries that last longer than the devices they power, and mini power plants for remote cities and towns. But the problem is that we do not want MORE nuclear material out in the world. No matter the benefits, the dangers are severe. I applaud this young mans innovation, but it will probably never happen because it is just too risky!
WillieWard
1.1 / 5 (10) Mar 01, 2013
Better would be no radioactive nuclear waste, just clean and safe neutron-free fusion energy. http://www.youtub...t186pWoA
Dunbar
4.7 / 5 (10) Mar 01, 2013
Er... most of you appear to have missed the point. These small reactors consume waste in a closed loop cycle; they don't generate waste. Once the reactor is "spent" the remaining radioactive material is already contained in a sealed unit ready for storage or recycling.

If someone tried to steal one of these reactors I imagine it would be slightly obvious when the power to 100,000 homes is suddenly cut.
Husky
1.8 / 5 (10) Mar 01, 2013
great, on behalve of the iranian government i would like to pre-order 12 units with weapon grade plutonium to wean us off the oil.

Think of the planet!
DoubleD
4 / 5 (3) Mar 01, 2013
so far the problem with helium cooling preventing leaks. He is much, much smaller than h2o.

nrc has little recent experience with msr's (molten salt reactors) and their fuel. minimum 10 years to license.

could use thorium, uranium, plutonium.... pretty much any fissile and fertile fuel. msr's can work as fast or thermal reactors.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (6) Mar 01, 2013
If someone tried to steal one of these reactors I imagine it would be slightly obvious when the power to 100,000 homes is suddenly cut.

If it's part of an energy grid then you wouldn't notice it until it's gone and someone figures that the total production capacity overall has dropped a little (and since variations in a grid are the norm that may take some time).

Even if it's NOT part of an energy grid you would only notice it when it's gone. And then it's too late. By the time you go out there to check, the thing could be on a plane headed who-knows-where.

great, on behalve of the iranian government i would like to pre-order 12 units

Exactly. After selling this stuff - how do you check it's been buried/connected (and stays that way)? The power for those homes could come from anywhere on the grid.
aaron1960
4.7 / 5 (6) Mar 01, 2013
And what are you left with after 30 years? A box full of candy? Or a box full of radioactive waste that needs to be stored for 300 generations?


you're left with the same thing you had when you started. The stuff if here already made and nothing usefull for it to do. Might as well make free clean energy with it for 30 years. Likely you can reprocess it afer 30 years and use it again and again for 100 out of the 300 generations you speak of.
dschlink
5 / 5 (5) Mar 01, 2013
A few errors in the article: he built a fusor, not just designed one. Also, he is graduating from high school, which in the USA means 12 or 13 years of education. Grade school in the USA is 8 or 9 years.
krundoloss
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 01, 2013
If the risk could be mitigated, then I say go for it! I just don't you could keep these things secure, especially in a developing country! The system is sound, the material is currently just sitting idle, but how could you possibly keep weapons grade nuclear material safe?
Claudius
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 01, 2013
how could you possibly keep weapons grade nuclear material safe?"


Call it "depleted" and use it for ammunition?
NikFromNYC
1 / 5 (7) Mar 01, 2013
As CO2 emissions supposedly threaten civilization and the whole biosphere, the very green activists responsible for scuttling the low-CO2 Atomic Age reveal their real motives as being rather like Dr. Who's generations of Daleks or Republican abortion banners who also want to ban teenage contraception.
explainer
4.3 / 5 (7) Mar 01, 2013
I share other's worries about dangerous radioactive waste, but why not build reactors like this on the same sites now running conventional reactors? The way I see it, the weapons grade material is already waste, and constitutes a major storage problem already. Why not convert it to energy?
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (6) Mar 01, 2013
As CO2 emissions supposedly threaten civilization and the whole biosphere, the very green activists responsible for scuttling the low-CO2 Atomic Age reveal their real motives as being rather like Dr. Who's generations of Daleks or Republican abortion banners who also want to ban teenage contraception.

I think you misunderstand. Ecologically minded people just don't want to 'cure' the black plague by replacing it with typhoid. (Especially since real, cheap and indefinitely sustainable cures without any kind of new dependency issues are available)

Maggnus
3 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2013
The part that caught my attention was the use of this reactor to power space habitats. The politics and fear mongering of getting them off the ground though (nice pun hey?!) will likely doom them before they get a chance to show their worth.
Sanescience
4 / 5 (4) Mar 01, 2013
Not enough info to go on.

Regarding to what kind of action needs to be taken after the lifespan of the module is reached, I'm guessing some kind of reprocessing. There is no way that any fission reactor is going to keep itself free of neutron spoilers to the effect of converting all its fuel to low grade fission products.

One of the biggest challenges for any reactor design is reliably modeling the wear of materials in the presence of radiation. Neutron bombardment can disrupt the atomic structure of any material and the cascade of fission products can introduce all kinds of exotic corrosive elements.

Not that I disagree with this kid, fission is going to be needed. And I'm sure this kid is smart, so are plenty of other people. I'm just guessing that it is going to take decades, not years.
Modernmystic
2.8 / 5 (11) Mar 01, 2013
As CO2 emissions supposedly threaten civilization and the whole biosphere, the very green activists responsible for scuttling the low-CO2 Atomic Age reveal their real motives as being rather like Dr. Who's generations of Daleks or Republican abortion banners who also want to ban teenage contraception.

I think you misunderstand. Ecologically minded people just don't want to 'cure' the black plague by replacing it with typhoid. (Especially since real, cheap and indefinitely sustainable cures without any kind of new dependency issues are available)



Well, since you're NOT going to get what you want which is worse?

1. A massive shift to fission until we can get fusion working

2. Continuing to burn fossil fuels like madmen and watching the planet fry

You're NEVER going to get the "other side" to agree to carbon taxes, or massive governmental regulation of the power industry. They ALREADY agree that nuclear power is viable and are on board with that...
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (4) Mar 01, 2013
FTA:

and the roadblocks ahead as political instead of technical.


Amen, we could start selling these tomorrow and solve a list of problems so long I'd run out of space listing them....
antialias_physorg
3.5 / 5 (8) Mar 01, 2013
Well, since you're NOT going to get what you want which is worse?
1. A massive shift to fission until we can get fusion working
2. Continuing to burn fossil fuels like madmen and watching the planet fry


False dichotomy.

The changeover to alternative methods of energy production is happening already. Without fission, without fusion, and without long term fossil fuel use.

It's not a pipe dream - the numbers are there for all to see. Industrialized nations are doing it, today. And it's working.
Lurker2358
1.4 / 5 (9) Mar 01, 2013
We need Nuclear Weapons.

The number and severity of wars has provably decreased, both in total and certainly relative to population, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.
DavidW
1 / 5 (7) Mar 01, 2013
The numbers are there for not using this stuff. The numbers that are there would be a much higher percentage of the total used if usage was dropped. If we stopped needlessly raising livestock for human consumption we would save considerable fuel, land, water, pollution and even come close stop the number one killer of people (in the usa). However, people must choose to open their own heart to the truth. Without that, there are too many issues that won't get fixed before you know what. That's just how it is.
Lurker2358
2.6 / 5 (9) Mar 01, 2013
DavidW:

Livestock are grazing on lands not suitable for primary crops, and htey also consume very large amounts of "shrink" and the parts of plants that humans do not eat. So the "cost" of raising livestock is skewed, since in reality they actually increase the total efficiency of large farming operations by sequestering the excess or otherwise wasted energy and resources of these plants as an edible product.

Without cattle you would also need more rubber and plastics, and more cottons for shoes, belts, furniture, and other such things. So you have not considered all of this properly, as the meat comes from a form of "recycling" the parts of the plants we don't eat, and the hides and bones go into products we use which would otherwise not exist at all (such as gelatin products,) or would be made from harmful plastics and chemicals.

Other portions of "reported" waste from the livestock industry goes into pet food and fishing bait.

Consider all angles fairly.
scidog
4.3 / 5 (3) Mar 02, 2013
designs or has a idea for a reactor.i my mind designs means he has pages of the engineering right down to bolt size,otherwise it's just another one of the thousands of ideas for something that can't and don't go anywhere as a means of self promotion.
FMA
1 / 5 (5) Mar 02, 2013
Government and oil company won't let you success!! They might send someone to kill you, be careful in the next few year.
Code_Warrior
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 02, 2013
Yawn. Nice job on the fusion reactor kid. Oh, news flash, you aren't a nuclear physicist and aren't the first kid to build a fusion reactor:
http://www.popsci...-reactor

Kid, your self aggrandizement bores me. Your competition is humble and is a kid I can get behind and admire, unlike you. So, you built a cheap sensor for a science fair project, good for you. It's a long way from a science fair el-cheapo sensor to a reliable commercial device kid, so don't insult the ingenuity of others. Prove it can be mfg'd cheaply and is reliable before you run your mouth. The same goes for the rest of your claims.

When your "superior" technology actually lives up to your arrogant, self aggrandizing, BS, then you can claim the title of world changer. While I give no credit to Steve Jobs for being the brains behind anything he is credited with, I will give him credit for being a visionary world changer, a title he earned, unlike you.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2013
However, people must choose to open their own heart to the truth
This would include yourself would it not?

Look at the other animals in the world. There are herbivores and there are those that eat herbivores. How did they get this way dave? Life is never static, its strength is in its 'urge to diverge', to seek out new niches, adapt to them, and begin new species.

Humans harbor this urge as well. But I dont think that all of us harbor the same propensities. Some of us are more suited to becoming grazers, herders, and leaf eaters, while others are more suited to hunting and killing grazers, herders, and leaf eaters.

Is this distasteful to you? Would you condemn the wolf or the jackal as you do the people to whom it is perfectly natural to emulate these behaviors?

Because it is. We ARE animals. Do not condemn the people who are only doing what comes naturally.
That's just how it is.
You want to be human? Embrace the lion. This is the only behavior unique to our species.
Mr_Man
5 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2013
So many comments filled with assumptions and fear. I think many of you are missing the point. We should be excited that an 18 year old kid is so incredibly intelligent and is working so hard to better the world, especially our energy needs.

Obviously his idea isn't perfect, nor does he or anyone else claim it is. The reactors aren't being put in use now. There are plenty of concerns but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be exploring the possible many benefits.

This kid should be considered a role model for other kids everywhere. Can you imagine how far we can go if other kids strive to be like him instead of like Kim Kardashian or any of the people on Jersey Shore?

This reactor idea is nothing short of amazing even if the technology isn't "new". If we halt these ideas due to fear of terrorism then we will basically stay idle until it is too late for everyone.
Benni
1 / 5 (4) Mar 02, 2013
Er... most of you appear to have missed the point. These small reactors consume waste in a closed loop cycle; they don't generate waste. Once the reactor is "spent" the remaining radioactive material is already contained in a sealed unit ready for storage or recycling.


This is a modified "thermocouple" device, based on the type presently used in deep space satellites where there is no sunlight available for photovoltaic power. Apparently he's come up with a more efficient manner of energy conversion with his gas turbine rather than the traditional method of a steam turbine to operate a generator. It will probably work but the regulatory process will probably ban extensive use of it in crowded neighborhoods. It'll probably be limited to farming operations & neighborhoods with a minimum of 5-10 acre lot sizes.
Benni
1 / 5 (4) Mar 02, 2013
I should also have mentioned in my above post, that this is not a "reactor" device based upon a fission process of splitting an atom with thermal neutrons.

This device uses waste heat generated by the natural radioactive decay processes of any radioactive material channeling that heat via an encapsulating heat exchanger usually to a "thermocouple". The "thermocouple" functions exactly as photo-voltaic cells by converting infrared radiation directly to electricity just as photo-voltaic cells convert sunlight directly to electricity.

However in the version of this article the waste heat of radio-active decay is used to heat a gas, which as it expands the acceleration of the expanding gases are directed through a small turbine to which is connected a small electrical generator.

The important thing to remember here, this is not a "nuclear reactor" as a few previous posters have referred to it, but there of course remains a small amount of radioactive material after 20-30 yrs of use.
concerned citizen
1 / 5 (4) Mar 02, 2013
Due to our greed for unlimited lighting, freezing, heating, processing materials and global transportation, we have set the world on course for disaster. Within one century we are facing depletion of 'oil' an easy to exploit resource. We are at a crossroads and its time to change our lifestyle. Yet some refuse to face the truth. Nuclear power is the worst alternative. However, now that we have created the monster, we must live with it. There is no way of safeguarding radioactive waste in the present geopolitical conditions. So, perhaps if governments can find way for 'controlled access to nuclear reactors' of this size, perhaps at a 'power generating plant' it might work. Until it falls in the wrong hands at some point in time. But, that is a possibility with all of the radioactive waste around the world. So, lets put it to a good use in the meanwhile.
Benni
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 02, 2013
However, now that we have created the monster, we must live with it. There is no way of safeguarding radioactive waste in the present geopolitical conditions.


But in most cases we do, it's when irresponsible governments get hold of nuclear technology that problems are created.

So, perhaps if governments can find way for 'controlled access to nuclear reactors' of this size,


I guess I need to say it again, this is not a "nuclear reactor", please, don't miss this very important point, it's critical to your understanding of what is under development here.

DirtySquirties
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 03, 2013
Any slight mention of fission, nuclear power, or some other related term, you morons come out of the woodwork and assume it will explode and kill everyone, someone will make a nuke with it, or we'll be bathing in radioactive soup.

How often has that ever f--king happened? Decades of nuclear power and we have, what, 3-4 incidents? Give me freaking break people!
alfie_null
not rated yet Mar 03, 2013
Yawn. Nice job on the fusion reactor kid. Oh, news flash, you aren't a nuclear physicist and aren't the first kid to build a fusion reactor:
http://www.popsci...-reactor

This is TED. Were you entertained? Or, if you are an entertainer, did it make you feel good?

Anyone care to revisit previous presentations/contributions, to check on what impact they have had?
Code_Warrior
4.6 / 5 (5) Mar 03, 2013
This is TED. Were you entertained?

No, I am not entertained by anyone who trivializes others while exaggerating their own importance. By calling himself a Nuclear Physicist, he trivializes a level of knowledge he has yet to achieve. Building a fusion reactor that is a copy of a proven design only shows that he is good at copying the work of others, it does not make him a nuclear physicist. Building a sensitive sensor for a science fair project does not require meeting demanding reliability and performance specs with regard to temperature variation, vibration, shock, signal to noise ratio, etc., nor was he required to do it within the constraints of mfg feasibility, packaging, and cost targets. By flippantly mocking the cost of his device vs. the commercial units, he insults those engineers that had to work with a far more demanding set of constraints than he did.

So, no, I was not entertained by him, I found him to be a disrespectful, arrogant, self aggrandizing, egomaniac.
Benni
2.2 / 5 (6) Mar 03, 2013
...Building a fusion reactor that is a copy of a proven design only shows that he is good at copying the work of others..


I too am puzzled by the description of "fusion" with regard to this.....I think the person writing the article may have added a few embellishments of their own.

Building a sensitive sensor for a science fair project does not require meeting demanding reliability and performance specs with regard to temperature variation, vibration, shock, signal to noise ratio, etc., nor was he required to do it within the constraints of mfg feasibility, packaging, and cost targets.


For sure most of his project must be on paper & is based on readily available technology much of which has already been patented. The gas used will be something like freon which is readily converted to gas from room temperature liquid state. Prototypes of this already exist, you can probably find most of it on a NASA website.

TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (6) Mar 03, 2013
I too am puzzled by the description of "fusion" with regard to this.....I think the person writing the article may have added a few embellishments of their own.
He built an inertial electrostatic confinement reactor. They are common and easy to build. Lots of youtube vids.
http://en.wikiped...finement
http://www.youtub...GVHuh8Iw

-The kid reminds me of a bipolar uncle I had-
antonima
1 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2013
News stories about the insignificance of the damage that the fukushima disaster has caused are already starting to crop up. Its a great that the media is taking a role in de-mystifying nuclear energy as a safe and necessary source of green energy. What this guy did was to show that it is easy for even a young, talented person to work with nuclear energy. This is an important step to show the general public that nuclear plants aren't something to be feared and demonized.
Steven_Anderson
1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 04, 2013
It's this simple. This method uses Uranium as its main fuel source. LFTR Reactors use Thorium as its main fuel source. Thorium is a lot safer, and doesn't provide the huge proliferation risk of this type of reactor. We have ignored the only viable technology that can be combined with Wind and Solar to satisfy 100% of US energy needs without the need for expensive storage technology. The only technology that can replace coal fire plant components for a working solution instead of build whole new power plants. http://rawcell.blogspot.com.
Marcos_Toledo
not rated yet Mar 04, 2013
Right on Taylor Wilson there is no such thing as waste. If your nuclear reactor can use atomic warheads as fuel. They can use the spent fuel rods and other such waste products as fuel killing two birds with one stone. I hope you succeed with this project.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2013
Right on Taylor Wilson there is no such thing as waste. If your nuclear reactor can use atomic warheads as fuel.
Warhead material should be used for nuclear propulsion and construction in space. Thats what it was made for in the first place.