Science TED Talks

3 teenage thinkers with big ideas for energy

Taylor Wilson has been called “The Boy Who Played With Fusion” by Popular Science magazine. At age 9, Wilson stunned tour guides at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with his complex understanding of rocket science. At 12, he set out to make a “star in a jar.” By 14, Wilson had become the youngest person to achieve nuclear fusion with a working reactor. Built in his parents’ garage, the deuterium-hurling device is now housed in the physics department of the University of Nevado, Reno.

At TED2013, Wilson made his second appearance on the TED stage, above. Now 19, he arrived with a bold new idea — a way to make nuclear energy safe and portable, on a scale where it has the potential to address the global energy crisis. In today’s talk, Wilson shares his latest innovation — Small Modular Fission Reactors. These reactors are small, meaning that they can be built in factories and shipped around the globe. They run on already-molten material, so meltdowns won’t be an issue. They’re installed three meters underground, making them hard to tamper with, and yet, in the event of a disaster, the core can be drained to a tank underneath, stopping the reaction. And while traditional nuclear power plants run for 18 months before needing refueling, the small-scale versions could run for up to 30 years, after which they could be sealed for discarding.

To hear how these reactors work — and a few potential applications, from bringing carbon-free energy to the developing world to propelling rockets into space — watch this talk.

A year ago, at TED2012, Wilson took the TED stage to talk about the nuclear fusion reactor he created in his basement. “I would like to make the case that nuclear fusion will be … our energy future,” he says in this talk, “Yup, I built a nuclear fusion reactor.” “I’d also like to make the case that kids can really change the world.”

Wilson isn’t the only teenager who has shared an energy innovation on the TED stage. At TEDGlobal 2007, William Kamkwamba answered questions about his incredible creation – a homemade windmill he built at age 14.

Kamkwamba set out to make a windmill to bring electricity to his family’s home in rural Malawi. He got the basic plans from a library book, reimagining the design out of spare parts, like a bicycle frame and plastic pipes. Kamkwamba made significant alterations in the design to improve upon it, adding an extra blade to increase the windmill’s power production. In the end, the windmill created 12 watts of energy – enough to power four lightbulbs and two radios in his family’s home.  At TEDGlobal 2009, he returned to the stage to tell the story in more detail in the talk “How I harnessed the wind.”

After his TED experience, Kamkwamba set his sights on building a bigger windmill to pump water and power irrigation for his entire village. Kwambama’s story was recently the subject of the documentary William and the Windmill, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW.

Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab, is an adult now. But in his talk from TED2003, he revealed that he started his first energy company — called Solar Devices — when he was 15 years old, building on what he learned in school about how parabolas could concentrate rays of light onto a single point. At the height of the gas shortage in 1973, Gross developed his own design for a Stirling engine in metal shop.

“I sold the plans for this engine and for this dish in the back of Popular Science magazine, for $4 each,” he says in this talk, “Bill Gross on new energy.” “I earned enough money to pay for my first year of Caltech.”

Want more talks with ideas for energy (regardless of the speaker’s age)? Watch the TED playlist “The End of Oil.” It begins with Wilson’s talk about his nuclear fusion reactor, continues with Donald Sadoway sharing the missing link to renewable energy, and continues with eight more great ideas for moving beyond our reliance on oil.