It’s a post-Fukushima, post-Gulf-oil-spill world. Conflicts continue to rage in the Middle East and economic recession haunts nations. Citizens are alternatively shocked by spiking gasoline prices and depressed by climate change.
But in a suburban industrial plaza in Canada, a group scientists and engineers work diligently with revived 1970s technology from the U.S. naval research lab, melding it with modern engineering breakthroughs. Their goal? To discover a new form of commercial energy. While vilified by part of the scientific community, they are nonetheless financed in part by a man who made billions from his Internet company and is now looking for Earth-friendly ways to invest his wealth.
Throw in some Michael Crichton plot twists and you would have the makings of a great thriller. The facts are much more mundane. The company, General Fusion Inc., situated in Burnaby, B.C., is pursuing a concept called magnetized target fusion in an attempt produce a power supply that scientists tout as safe, cheap and non-toxic. It also wouldn’t consume non-renewable resources or harm the environment. Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos’s venture company, Bezos Expeditions, is a backer and the company has managed to acquire former Tektronix CEO Rick Wills as chairman.
By 2015, the tiny Burnaby, B.C. company could construct a prototype of a magnetized target fusion reactor that produces more energy than goes in. In a decade, they could build their first full-sized reactor. By 2030, General Fusion-designed power plants could dot the landscape while founder Michel Laberge and CEO Doug Richardson are lauded as environmental saviors and great Canadian inventors.
The alternative future is as dreary as it is with all startups that fail: General Fusion does its best to crack the fusion energy puzzle but ultimately doesn’t have enough time and resources needed to solve a myriad of difficult and expensive scientific problems. Disgruntled investors turn off funding, disillusioned staff leave, the company folds and the scientific community forever links General Fusion with Cold Fusion and other utopian scientific promises.
Yet, if they succeed, the future accolades would be well-deserved. Viable fusion energy would be the crowning achievement of science conquering the world’s energy problems. Our reliance on carbon-based fuels has produced an unhealthy addiction to dirty energy and has shaped our geo-political world around those who own these resources and those who do not. Nuclear power, in the light of the Fukushima disaster, graphically highlights the dangers inherent in that power source. And despite the additions of alternative forms of power like wind and solar, in the decades to come there will be an increasing gap between the supply and demand for energy, especially electricity.
Against this background, fusion energy looks like a godsend. As tantalizing as it seems, the actual process of producing vast multiples of energy out of a chemical process is a unicorn that has been outpacing scientists for 75 years.
To prevent General Fusion from becoming another money-burning footnote in the fusion saga, Laberge, who established the company in 2002, is employing a technique that should have been funded and pursued back in the ‘70s, but wasn’t—at least not fully.
Research and funding has been largely devoted to two other potential methods of attaining fusion power, inertial or laser fusion and magnetic fusion. This has blossomed into two mega-projects. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor program in the south of France will use magnetic fusion and employ strong magnetic fields to hold and fuse hydrogen plasma. And in the U.S., the National Ignition Facility is using lasers to ignite hydrogen plasma as it experiments with inertia confinement, also known as laser fusion. ITER and NIF are both government-sponsored multi-billion-dollar programs employing legions of scientists and engineers with access to labs and resources across the globe. Although somewhat sidelined by the European debt crisis, ITER is expected to cost now at least €15 billion to build. The U.S. Department of Energy created the NIF facility and 192 of the world’s most power lasers for US$3.5 billion and it has an annual budget of half a billion.
General Fusion’s budget is laughably more modest. In 2009, it was able to get $13.75 million in initial funding, supported by the Canadian government’s Sustainable Development Technology fund, led by Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital. Last year, the company completed $19.5 million in financing from Cenovus Energy and Jeff Bezos’s venture firm. Right now it’s staffing 65 employees, including a dozen PhDs.
When compared with the mega-labs, General Fusion may not look like such a serious contender. But in the 1970s, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. was pursuing a different, far less expensive approach. Called the Linus project, (named for the liner technology and the Peanuts character) scientists believed the plasma fuel encased by a liner of liquid lithium/lead could be compressed by pneumatically-driven pistons. But the naval labs lacked the capacity to model the magnetized plasma and funding eventually was moved to other projects.
Watching General Fusion’s progress with interest is Peter J. Turchi, who was in charge of the imploding liner technology for the overall Linus program between 1972 and 1980 at the naval lab. Turchi developed the piston-driven system to compress the plasma target.
Turchi said experimenting with plasma will always be difficult, but he called the group courageous for pursuing the project despite a lack of research and money.
“Will Mother Nature agree in all manifestations to allow them to get the right kind of plasma? It’s not clear. But that’s where it becomes an R&D effort,” said Turchi, adding that trying different methods is essential to General Fusion’s eventual success.
The General Fusion reactor
The General Fusion reactor would be comparable to no common industrial device other than perhaps a large spherical diesel engine. At opposite ends of the sphere, capacitors power larger injectors which heat a plasma fuel mix of deuterium and tritium to 1 million degrees Celsius. The plasma is simultaneously pushed inside the sphere at opposite ends where it is molded by magnetic fields into a donut shape and forced to meet in the middle. As that happens, the 200 pneumatic pistons—called the Acoustic Driver—exert pressure on the lead-filled sphere by impacting at 50 metres per second within a time span of plus- or minus-10 microseconds. This impact creates a spherically converging shockwave in the liquid lead that focuses in on the plasma at the centre of the sphere, which could reach a temperature of 150 million degrees Celsius. That is the force and timing needed, it is thought, to compress the plasma, fuse the hydrogen atoms and heat the surrounding liquid lead to even higher temperatures.
General Fusion’s experimental reactor. (Image: Trevor Melanson)
After the fusion reaction superheats the lead to even higher temperatures, the operation becomes more conventional as the lead is pumped out and the high temperatures are used to run a turbine. All this would take place in less than a second before the pulse begins again. The speed and efficiency of the turbines represents a major milestone for the company. Symmetrically compacting the plasma is essential to creating the heat and pressures needed for a fusion reaction—like squeezing a water balloon with your hands and not letting any part of the balloon pop out—as any escaping plasma immediately cools too quickly for fusion to take place.
While on paper Laberge believed the servo-systems and pistons would be key to achieving fusion, recent tests on the system have been successful at achieving the speeds and synchronous control needed.
Like all entrepreneurs surveying a difficult business environment, General Fusion must bring something cheaper, faster or more desirable to the market to succeed. Fast-forward from 1972 to 2012 and the loose research ends of Linus and tech advances have given the company opportunity.
“Computer power to control processes to very high precision was not possible in 1976,” CEO Doug Richardson said. “Today it’s completely possible and it’s dirt cheap.”
Still, there is a high risk that the plasma will not react as predicted. Physics could throw the group a curve ball at the sub-atomic level, and the technology would need exhaustive refinements. Heat loss is the main concern; keeping plasma heated and under pressure at several hundred million degrees for long enough for atoms to fuse is the big question mark.
The next important milestone experiment involves using a deuterium – deuterium low-density plasma mix. Designed to measure the temperature, density and lifetime of confinement required, it will extrapolate whether the calculations and technology will come together and achieve net gain conditions.
These tests will go a long way to prove that General Fusion’s future prototype reactor will actually work when it is fuelled by a high-density mix of deuterium and tritium. That is the fuel that will produce huge multiples of energy from a fusion reaction. Work should commence on these experiments in the fall and the results will be revealed in mid-2013.
Laberge said that the low-density extrapolations suggest fusion will be possible, adding that adjustments can be made to scale the reactor larger to compensate if the plasma cools too quickly. Discovering that the plasma reaction must require a reactor on an unprecedented larger scale means the work has led to a dead-end. Similarly, any other problem that prevents the company from pursuing a viable method of achieving commercial fusion will mean the end of funding.
Richardson said that while the climate and energy ramifications of the project can be hard to take in, it’s important to focus on the smaller engineering problems and the larger problems will take care of themselves.
“All systems, no matter what you’re building, come down to a bunch of wires, nuts and bolts, bits of metal and how they all go together. They are all the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the space shuttle or a fusion device or whatever it is…. It’s a bunch of little problems and a little development that all has to come together. You move forward and you have problems and you solve them and you get on with it.”
Part II: A scientific challenge like no other