Editor's note: Taylor Wilson first became fascinated with nuclear power at the age of 10. The Nevada teen-ager is the youngest person in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor and has won dozens of national science awards. Now 18, he is now aiming to use his vast knowledge of nuclear physics to try and make nuclear fusion a viable source of power.
By Taylor Wilson, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Many of the problems we face as a society are rooted in energy. Conflicts are driven by our unending quest for fossil fuels. Clean water, stable food supplies and manufacturing and innovation are all driven by this unquenchable appetite for energy.
As a society we lack that stable supply of energy. There is, however, one source that is completely clean, immensely powerful and incredibly abundant: nuclear fusion.
When the power of the atom was first discovered in the 1930s, scientists immediately realized the atom’s potential not only as a weapon but as a force of good - one that could provide abundant energy, ensure stable food supplies and eradicate disease. In the 1940s, the crash program known as the Manhattan Project brought together the greatest minds in the country to unlock this strong nuclear force. During the next two decades, the promise and peril of nuclear technology was demonstrated and entered American popular culture.
I recently went with a group of friends to see the new "Avengers" movie. It’s impossible to avoid how nuclear technology directly influenced many of characters, from the peril of Bruce Banner’s alter ego, the Hulk, to the promise of Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor. These characters were first penned during the height of American nuclear research in the early 1960s. Popular culture as a whole recognized that while threatening, the newfound power of the atom was the future.
One of these technologies, nuclear fusion, is perhaps the disruptive technology that we are in desperate need of. We don’t have the energy source that the human race will need to survive centuries into the future. We are polluting our planet with fossil fuels and even without this eventuality, the simple fact of the matter is we won’t have fossil fuels forever. In fact, we won’t even have uranium to run commercial nuclear power plants for all that long either. Even if we did, the problems with accidents and spent nuclear fuel are still a major concern with these plants.
Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, is potentially more powerful than our fission-based power stations but depending on the fuel cycle, produces very little to no residual radiation or radioactive waste. It is also universally abundant. The fuels, whether they be hydrogen, heavy-hydrogen, lithium or boron, are found all around us.
Unfortunately, after decades of research, the so called “break-even” point — obtaining more power out of a fusion reaction than is put in - has eluded researchers. The traditional approach of magnetic confinement (typically Tokamaks which essentially consist of a large magnetic thermos for super-hot plasma) works great in principle but as these reactors are scaled up, so are the instabilities that cool the plasma.
Even with these billion-dollar machines, Tokamaks such as ITER are only able to burn Deuterium-Tritium fuels - the byproducts of which lead to low and medium level radioactive waste, extreme structural materials degradation and lead to much of the energy leaving the reactor without imparting energy to the system.
I built a fusion reactor, although very inefficient, when I was fourteen. While that device is old news and intrinsically cannot produce break-even, it can burn the other fuel cycles - the “holy grails” of fusion power that the big-boys’ toys can’t.
For a few million dollars, smaller disruptive technologies of various designs like that reactor will, in my opinion, bring nuclear fusion power closer to reality than the billion-dollar projects ever will. Nuclear energy from fusion provides the energy for all the life we see around us - plants and animals, you and me.
And while it’s easy for the stars to do it with lots of gravity at their disposal, we scientists here on earth have to get clever to unlock its secrets. When we do, we will have brought the power of the heavens down to earth, unlocking the fabled Prometheus’ Fire. and we will have the energy source we need to survive long into the future.