Member Spotlight: General Fusion
In 2002, Dr. Michel Laberge founded General Fusion to develop energy sources through nuclear fusion. Named to the Global Clean Tech 100, General Fusion started off with four employees in 2009 and currently boasts over sixty staff. The CNA recently sat down with company VP Michael Delage at their headquarters in Burnaby, B.C., to talk about their goal to deliver fusion power.
TELL ME ABOUT FUSION SCIENCE.
Fusion is nature’s energy source, the process by which stars burn, including our sun. When you heat up hydrogen to extremely high temperatures, the atoms collide and stick together, forming helium. This process releases a lot of energy. Fusion technology is about replicating conditions you would find on the sun, here on earth, in order to produce energy.
If you think about what our power plant would look like, we form this little bubble of superheated gas (called a plasma) wrapped in a magnetic field, in the middle of a big spherical tank of liquid metal. The tank is surrounded by pneumatic hammers which hit the outside of the tank. These hammers, firing simultaneously, set up a pressure wave in the liquid metal which travels to the middle of the tank where the bubble of plasma is. The pressure wave can be focused thanks to the spherical shape, becoming very strong and crushing the bubble of plasma. This compression heats the plasma to fusion conditions and releases a lot of energy.
HOW COULD IT CHANGE THE WAY WE SEE ENERGY?
A fusion reaction only produces helium, so it’s clean. There are no emissions or spent fuel waste. We are also aren’t limited with where we can produce this power because the raw materials are very common. So you can build a power plant anywhere and provide safe, clean and reliable base load power 24/7. It could power humanity for the long term.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
It’s pretty hard to replicate the conditions of the sun, temperatures over 15 million degrees C. No material can hold a gas in those conditions, so researchers have atypically turned to more exotic approaches like lasers and magnetic fields.
YOU HAVE FOUND AN INTERESTING WAY TO ADDRESS CHALLENGES.
Crowd sourcing is an interesting idea and a good tool to help address challenges. We worked with a company, InnoCentive, that has worked with NASA, to write up one of our problems and offered a prize for a solution that meets our requirements. We gave everyone submitting thirty days. We had sixty different solvers submit potential solutions working on the problem, and selected one winner that was particularly interesting. Turns out it was from an MIT-trained veteran engineer. We learned a lot from what makes for a good challenge and we are going to do some more in the future.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR GENERAL FUSION?
We just raised $27 million this spring, and that will fund us for the next few years. We are making steady progress on demonstrating the core science and developing systems that are needed to build a full-scale plant.