Because of the huge risks posed by nuclear energy to the environment and mankind, many societies prefer to rely on old-fashioned sources of electricity instead of welcoming the amazing benefits of nuclear energy. Nuclear research is still young, and many further developments are still necessary to perfectly harness nuclear energy while eliminating (or minimizing, at best) its risks.
This is the advocacy of Leslie Dewan, who, in spite of her young age, has already made an amazing leap in her career with a new design of a nuclear power plant that is safer and far more efficient than the plants running today.
Leslie Dewan was born in 1986 in Boston, Massachusetts. As a child, Leslie was interested in science, math and technology, and loved to experiment with things. Her family's well-to-do lifestyle further enabled her to develop her skills and talents, and her parents' love and care encouraged her to be the best she can be.
Even at a young age, Leslie demonstrated remarkable intellect and brightness. Not only did she excel academically through her exams and graded recitations, but she also demonstrated leadership, creativity, and amazing imagination that regularly won her teachers’ praise. Leslie was also attractive and outgoing, and she became quite popular as a result. Her love for science did not hinder her popularity, and her intelligence and determination allowed her to finish with flying colours in both her primary and secondary years.
Studying At MIT And Interest In Nuclear Energy
In 2002, Leslie entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study nuclear and mechanical engineering. Since high school, Leslie had been very intrigued with the concept of nuclear energy, and wanted to learn more about it and how it could be improved. Leslie's academic performance was incredible and, in 2007, she earned her Bachelor's Degrees in two courses.
Prior to holding such interest in nuclear energy, Leslie also researched other fossil-fuel alternatives for producing electrical energy in a country as large as the United States. She studied solar power and wind energy, but determined after further research that they would not fare well when it came to large industries, despite their value as small-scale alternatives.
Leslie later said in an interview:
"I originally looked to solar and wind power as ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but then I looked at the numbers and realized that nuclear power is the best low-carbon energy source that is available and scalable."
First Work Experience
After graduating, Leslie had a brief stint at a robotics company in Cambridge, where she designed a search-and-rescue robot as well as a device used for identifying biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. For her invention, she was awarded an MIT Presidential Fellowship in 2008 and a Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship in 2010.
Continuing Her Studies
In 2008, Leslie decided to continue her studies and pursue her Master's Degree in Nuclear Engineering at MIT. She completed the course in 2010 and afterwards took the qualifying exams for her doctorate studies. By this time, Leslie was highly intrigued by nuclear power’s potential to be the most efficient energy resource, but simultaneously intrigued by the risks it poses. After passing her qualifying exams, Leslie decided to devote her time and effort to learning all she can about nuclear energy and how to improve current designs so that the risks of running nuclear plants may always be minimal.
In an interview, Leslie jokingly recalled what she had said to one of her classmates:
"We were feeling on top of the world. We just passed our qualifying exams for our PhDs... We thought, 'We’re the smartest we’ve been in our lives. We can do anything. Let’s change the world with nuclear.'"
Revolutionizing The Nuclear Reactor Industry
While still a student at MIT and immersed in her doctorate studies, Leslie, with the collaboration of fellow student Mark Massey, began research on a nuclear plant design based on a 50s-era model of a molten-salt reactor; instead of spewing large amounts of waste, the plant would instead reuse the spent nuclear material as fuel.
The idea was simple: current nuclear plant designs are delicate and risky enough that, if ever there was a leak, nuclear waste would endanger its surrounding environment for many years to come. Furthermore, plants use a great deal of electricity to pump in the water needed to cool the reactors. Leslie’s and Mark's design, however, utilizes molten salt as the coolant (molten salt is mixed with the nuclear material), which would not risk a meltdown in an event of loss of electricity because the salts would cool off the nuclear fuel.
Originally, the 1950s reactor design was huge and expensive, but Leslie made an incredible leap by finding a way to reduce its size and increase its output of electricity at the same time. Because of this improvement, the reactor became compact enough that an appropriately-sized reactor for a power plant could be made in a factory and shipped to the plant site instead of having the reactor built at the site, which is the traditional method. Leslie's design also significantly reduces the amount of waste produced by a reactor, leading Leslie to affectionately name it the "Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.”
Establishing Transatomic Power
To patent the design, Leslie and Mark established a company named "Transatomic Power" with the help of seed money from family members, friends and local entrepreneurs who showed interest in their research. Russ Wilcox, the former CEO of E Ink Corporation, also supported the duo, and the three became the core founding members of Transatomic Power. As time passed, they were joined by a team of veteran nuclear experts who were drawn in by Leslie's amazing ideas.
Of course, their work was met with criticism, especially from the already-established nuclear plants. Furthermore, the designs produced by Transatomic Power were not yet certified under the United States' standards - one reason was the lack of material for the construction of a reactor that could withstand the extreme conditions of its core for decades. In spite of this, Leslie and her team at Transatomic Power continue to believe that, as they conduct more research and make more improvements, the United States government will soon support their design.
The Road Ahead
Leslie's designs still exist as both documents and computer simulations. While she has already made designs for a practical experiment, she still has a long way to go before the “Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor” is used in future nuclear power plants. This is because of the numerous certifications and tests required for the U.S. government to ensure the reactor design meets all standards.
But Leslie is well aware of this, and her vision of the success of her reactor designs far outweighs the challenges and obstacles that lay ahead of her. Whenever Leslie looks at her designs, she is always encouraged by the potential they have to change the entire nuclear industry. She does not let the numerous tests and certifications discourage her from continuing - instead, she is confident that, sooner or later, her designs will come to be acknowledged; and, when that happens, it will change the world. As she says about reactors on her website:
"At full deployment, our reactors can use existing stockpiles of nuclear waste to satisfy the world’s electricity needs through 2083."
- 2004-2010: Researcher, Center for Materials Research and Ethnograph (MIT)
- 2007-2008: Robotics Engineer, Vecna Technologies
- 2010: Founder and Chief Science Officer, Transatomic Power
- 2011: Visiting Researcher, Center for Computational Sciences and Engineering (Berkeley National Laboratory)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Transatomic Power
- American Nuclear Society
Awards and Achievements
- 2008: Conferred Presidential Fellowship by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- 2010: Conferred the DOE Computational Science Graduate Fellowship
- 2012: Included in the “30 Under 30” list by Forbes Magazine
- 2013: Included in “35 Innovators Under 30” by the MIT Technology Review and “30 People Under 30 Changing the World” by TIME Magazine
IIP Digital (Nuclear Entrepreneurs)
Transatomic Power (Team)
MIT Technology Review (Leslie Dewan)
LinkedIn (Leslie Dewan)
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