Inside the Burnaby, B.C., lab that’s forging the future of energy - Association nucléaire canadienne

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Inside the Burnaby, B.C., lab that’s forging the future of energy

December 19, 2018

VANCOUVER—It powers the sun and for decades scientists have dreamed it would one day power the world.

The problem, is fusion energy is exceedingly difficult to harness — and Canada, which ended its national fusion research program amid government cutbacks in the 1990s, has lagged other countries in investment.

A 35-nation collaboration that includes major Canadian trading partners, meanwhile, has pushed forward and is now on its way to investing more than $25 billion to build the ITER Tokamak, a magnetic fusion device, in France with the goal of proving that fusion is a viable energy source.

But the race to fusion power isn’t over yet and Canada’s poor showing may be shifting.

A B.C. company, considered a leader among private fusion efforts, may have an alternative path to a commercial fusion power plant that could ultimately help displace fossil fuel-generated electricity. And, with a recent $49-million commitment to the project the federal government could be signalling new interest in the technology.

While today there are just a handful of research groups working on fusion in Canada, experts in the field want to see additional investments in research to maintain that expertise and ensure Canada is ready if — or when — the technology becomes viable.

“The benefits are so huge, once you are able to harness fusion energy you don’t need to worry about energy anymore,” said Chijin Xiao, a professor of physics at the University of Saskatchewan, who studies the tokamak approach to fusion.

Nestled in a light-industrial area of Burnaby, B.C., General Fusion has been working for years to realize fusion energy, a process whereby two light atoms, such as hydrogen, collide and fuse into a heavier atom, such as helium, creating a massive burst of energy along the way.

Nuclear fusion is not to be confused with nuclear fission, which is what powers existing nuclear power plants, such as Ontario’s Darlington and Pickering facilities.

While both fission and fusion are nuclear reactions, fission energy is created by breaking large atoms apart. And fusion — unlike fission — does not create dangerous, long lasting radioactive waste.

Inside the General Fusion lab, the company says it has proven that its various futuristic-looking machines actually do the job they are supposed to.

Now, they’re working towards a demonstration plant to prove they will work together as one system to produce fusion reactions and capture that energy as heat. In a potential future power plant that heat would be used to generate electricity with existing technology.

What’s not yet clear is whether that plant will be built in B.C. or even in Canada.

As we continue to hurtle towards the worst impacts of climate change, a clean, safe and reliable form of energy is needed more than ever, and fusion could be the holy grail.

The fusion process itself produces no carbon dioxide emissions and a power plant could be turned on and off as needed, differentiating it from wind and solar.

“It’s the kind of power source that people have dreamed of for, I would say, generations,” said Warren Mabee, the Canada research chair in renewable energy development and implementation at Queen’s University.

The federal government’s $50 million investment is “a good signal the government is interested in supporting the technology and promoting it as it goes forward,” he said.

Mabee cautioned that “the most pragmatic approach to energy investment would probably be to support the ‘proven’ renewables, like wind and solar, and to invest in new storage technologies to augment them.”

But General Fusion’s demonstration plant, which would be the first of its kind, could play a significant role in reducing reliance on fossil fuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions if it works.

The questions are whether General Fusion, or another fusion project, can show that they can create energy on a sustained basis and that it will pay for itself, Mabee said.

Mike Donaldson, General Fusion’s vice-president of fusion engineering, is confident the company’s approach will result in a power plant that both works and is economically viable.

“Fusion is going to revolutionize the energy source of the world,” he said.

At this point, Donaldson said, General Fusion has created fusion fuel by transforming hydrogen gas into plasma with extreme heat; created the liquid metal cavity that will capture the energy from a fusion reaction in the demonstration plant; and, using pistons, forced that cavity to collapse.

They have not yet injected the plasma into the liquid metal cavity, compressed it to create a fusion reaction and captured its energy.

That’s what the demonstration plant is for. “Fusion works better bigger,” said Donaldson.

In the demonstration plant “we’re taking all the technologies that General Fusion has developed over the last 10 years and we’re integrating them into one big system,” he said.

Recent advances in high-speed computing and other technologies like 3D printing have made the company’s approach, which is based on a decades-old proposal by the US Naval Research Lab, seem more attainable.

General Fusion’s demonstration plant is expected to cost significantly less than ITER, likely a few hundred million compared to $25 billion.

They also believe their method will overcome key concerns with the tokamak approach around the potential for neutrons released during the fusion reaction to interact with the walls of the chamber and create radioactive material. While this material wouldn’t be as long-lasting as the waste created by nuclear power today, it would require the machinery to be replaced frequently.

General Fusion’s approach relies on a liquid cavity that would capture the energy from the neutrons and protect the outside wall from damage.

Though, as Xiao noted, the risks still need to be evaluated in a demonstration plant.

The company is beginning to evaluate potential sites for its demonstration plant and Bruce Colwill, Fusion energy’s chief financial officer, said they’re hoping to make a decision by the end of next year.

“We would love to build it in B.C., but we are also looking further afield,” Colwill said.

The company is looking for a few acres of land, available in the near term, at the right price, and in an area with people who have the expertise to design, construct and operate the plant.

“It’s still early days,” he said, but the company is hoping that within five years the plant will be built and in operation.

In a statement, B.C.’s Minister of Jobs, Trade, and Technology, Bruce Ralston said the ministry is “in close communication with General Fusion as they evaluate their future activities here in B.C.”

“Our government is working to grow a sustainable inclusive economy where every region of the province benefits from job growth and investment. We want the world to know that B.C. is open for business and remains a key destination for emerging technological development,” he said.

If all goes well, the General Fusion’s Donaldson expects the main challenges that lay between the demonstration plant, where the pistons will fire once a day, and a commercial fusion power plant, where the pistons will fire once a second, will be largely engineering challenges.

We’ve had a lot of practice overcoming those, he said.

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