The Boy Who Played With Fusion

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Shortly after his 14th birthday, Taylor Wilson — with technician Bill Brinsmead — loaded deuterium fuel into their machine, brought it up to power, and confirmed the presence of neutrons:

With that, Taylor became the 32nd individual on the planet to achieve a nuclear-fusion reaction. Yet what would set Taylor apart from the others was not the machine itself but what he decided to do with it.

While still developing his medical isotope application, Taylor came across a report about how the thousands of shipping containers entering the country daily had become the nation’s most vulnerable “soft belly,” the easiest entry point for weapons of mass destruction. Lying in bed one night, he hit on an idea: Why not use a fusion reactor to produce weapons-sniffing neutrons that could scan the contents of containers as they passed through ports? Over the next few weeks, he devised a concept for a drive-through device that would use a small reactor to bombard passing containers with neutrons. If weapons were inside, the neutrons would force the atoms into fission, emitting gamma radiation (in the case of nuclear material) or nitrogen (in the case of conventional explosives). A detector, mounted opposite, would pick up the signature and alert the operator.

He entered the reactor, and the design for his bomb-sniffing application, into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The Super Bowl of pre-college science events, the fair attracts 1,500 of the world’s most switched-on kids from some 50 countries. When Intel CEO Paul Otellini heard the buzz that a 14-year-old had built a working nuclear-fusion reactor, he went straight for Taylor’s exhibit. After a 20-minute conversation, Otellini was seen walking away, smiling and shaking his head in what looked like disbelief. Later, I would ask him what he was thinking. “All I could think was, ‘I am so glad that kid is on our side.’ ”

For the past three years, Taylor has dominated the international science fair, walking away with nine awards (including first place overall), overseas trips and more than $100,000 in prizes. After the Department of Homeland Security learned of Taylor’s design, he traveled to Washington for a meeting with the DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which invited Taylor to submit a grant proposal to develop the detector. Taylor also met with then–Under Secretary of Energy Kristina Johnson, who says the encounter left her “stunned.”

“I would say someone like him comes along maybe once in a generation,” Johnson says. “He’s not just smart; he’s cool and articulate. I think he may be the most amazing kid I’ve ever met.”

And yet Taylor’s story began much like David Hahn’s, with a brilliant, high-flying child hatching a crazy plan to build a nuclear reactor. Why did one journey end with hazmat teams and an eventual arrest, while the other continues to produce an array of prizes, patents, television appearances, and offers from college recruiters?

The answer is, mostly, support. Hahn, determined to achieve something extraordinary but discouraged by the adults in his life, pressed on without guidance or oversight — and with nearly catastrophic results. Taylor, just as determined but socially gifted, managed to gather into his orbit people who could help him achieve his dreams: the physics professor; the older nuclear prodigy; the eccentric technician; the entrepreneur couple who, instead of retiring, founded a school to nurture genius kids.

I say he’s one lab accident away from becoming a super-villain.

(Hat tip to Al Fin, who emphasizes that the Davidson Academy is a kind of Hogwarts for Brainiacs.)


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    You do realize this is fiction, don’t you?

  2. Ben says:

    A large number of tabletop fusion reactors have been built.

    Many such devices produce lots of neutrons. This is, in fact, their current practical appeal.

    It’s been going on for about half a century, ever since the guy who invented TV did it.

    Of course any implication that this is producing net power (an implication not made in the article or the blog post) is a different (fictional) story.

    My money’s on electrostatic inertial confinement, not magnetic. Maybe Bussard’s design (Polywell).

    What I really want to see at the HS science fair is the sonoluminescence experiment.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Taylor Wilson has his own website, a Wikipedia page, and a TED Talk.

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