While most kids’ inclination would be to dig through the craft bucket and fashion one out of construction paper and scotch tape, Wilson took a different approach ­— he began tinkering with nuclear science.  At 14 years of age, Texarkana, Ark. native, Wilson built a fusion reactor in his garage, becoming the youngest person on earth to achieve fusion. This was in 2008, and Wilson continues to make significant breakthroughs.

Now, at 19, he’s delivered two TED Talks on nuclear science, visited CERN’s Higgs Boson-questing large hadron collider, met President Barack Obama to explain the radiation detection systems he invented and fashioned a portable system to produce isotopes for nuclear medicine and cancer treatment.


Video credit: TEDTalks

“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish but I’m always constantly looking for the next, even bigger thing,” says Wilson. “A lot of this is about my personality, I’m never quite content with what I do.”

It’s probably a good thing that he isn’t.  Wilson’s game of one-upmanship against himself seems to be paying dividends for mankind as a whole.

“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish but I’m always, constantly looking for the next, even bigger thing.  A lot of this is about my personality, I’m never quite content with what I do.”

Transcending industry

Both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Energy are interested in Wilson’s radiation detection systems, which can be used for counter-terrorism and are very cost-efficient (hundreds of dollars versus
hundreds of thousands of dollars).

His portable medical isotope production system can be used onsite for less than $100,000 and drastically broadens the reach of nuclear medicine — specifically cancer treatment.

“The isotopes that are used to treat and diagnose cancer are currently produced in multi-million dollar, very large devices,” says Wilson. “The device I developed can be simply rolled into the hospital room.”

Nuclear medicine holds a special place in his research — Wilson’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer before he built his first reactor.
“Those are the technologies I developed during my high school years,” says Wilson nonchalantly.

When he speaks, he’s incredibly articulate for a 19-year-old but his youthful excitement trickles out when he talks about the future.

“I knew all along that when I graduated high school, I wanted to start up a company to commercialize my technologies,” says Wilson.

“I’ve got some ideas on cancer therapy and cures... I think that’s where I’m going — maybe after I solve the whole energy problem.”

Energy solutions

At the moment, he’s focused on developing modular power reactors — they’re smaller than regular nuclear power plants but can generate anywhere from 2 to 100 megawatts of electricity.

“When they’re completely filled up, they can run for 30 years,” explains the young nuclear physicist. “They’re fission reactors, so yes, there’s some pretty gnarly stuff inside the core; but unlike a current nuclear power plant, if there’s loss of coolant or if there’s an earthquake or tsunami, the reactor doesn’t have an inclination to release the contents into the environment.”

He’s hoping his reactors will bring power to the developing world, streamline how grids distribute power and change the way people think about the safety of nuclear energy.

“To most people radiation seems like this very mysterious, dangerous, invisible thing,” says Wilson, crediting pop culture and The Simpsons with the oft-negative perception of it. “I grew up with it — having collected radioactive stuff and put it in my garage since I was nine or 10 years old.  I’m not cavalier when I handle it and radiation is not something that should be trifled with; but at the same time, it’s not something that should be unduly feared.”

"I’m not cavalier when I handle it and radiation is not something that should be trifled with; but at the same time, it’s not something that should be unduly feared.”

Looking ahead

The future Wilson sees is ripe with nuclear innovation — safe, clean energy production, more efficient cancer treatments and a nuclear-adept society.

“Hopefully, my greatest contribution will be sustainable and powerful fusion energy.  We’re a ways away from that, but I have some ideas on how I’ll make it work,” says Wilson. “Of course, if I do solve the world’s energy problems, I’ll have to find an even bigger problem to work on.”

A passionate pursuit

Although Taylor Wilson has a lot on his plate at the moment — from building safer reactors to, well, navigating the first years of college — the young nuclear physicist hopes to bolster his research in cancer treatment.

“It’s one of the things that is really close to me,” says Wilson. “To solve the cancer problem you need early detection, therapies and cures.”

Finding cancer sooner rather than later drastically improves the survival rate. “That’s what I did with the medical isotope generation,” says Wilson. “It increases the ability of hospitals to do things like PET scans, which are usually limited to major research centres and hospitals.”

“It’s one of the things that is really close to me.  To solve the cancer problem you need early detection, therapies and cures.”

Recently, he’s been looking into developing a radio-amino therapy, a process where the body targets the cancer cells, which are then killed with a short-lived, short-range alpha emitter — a radioactive isotope that decays by emitting alpha particles. It’s a complicated technique, and still working its way through the gears of Wilson’s brains, but it’s just one of the potentially life-saving technologies the young nuclear physicist could end up developing.

“I’ve got some ideas on cancer therapy and cures,” says Wilson. “I think that’s where I’m going — maybe after I solve the whole energy problem."