Posted on: September 27th, 2017
R. Bruce Striegler
Michael Delage, Chief Technology Officer at Burnaby, B.C.’s General Fusion Inc. explains that the founder, Dr. Michel Laberge is, “a scientist, an engineer and a physicist who had a passion about fusion.” After nine years with Vancouver-based CREO Products, Laberge decided to start a company whose purpose was the development of economically viable fusion energy generation. “This was an audacious idea, this is a very technically challenging thing, but he felt the private route might not only offer a way to do things differently, but also move at a pace that is faster than government-led efforts. So he started General Fusion in 2002.”
General Fusion’s approach is designed from the ground up to enable a practical, commercially viable power plant. Utilizing what is called a magnetized target fusion system, the Company’s approach uses three main components; a plasma injector, which supplies the fuel; an array of pistons to compress the fuel and a chamber of spinning liquid metal to hold the fuel and capture the energy. General Fusion’s system uses a sphere filled with molten lead-lithium that is pumped to form a vortex. A pulse of magnetically-confined plasma fuel (hydrogen), is then injected into the vortex. Around the sphere, an array of pistons drive a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions. This process is then repeated, while the heat from the reaction is captured in the liquid metal and used to generate electricity via a steam turbine.
General Fusion power plants will be modular, allowing multiple units to be deployed to power large cities or heavy industry. When it comes to renewable energy, most people think of solar power, wind power and tidal power, but the fusion option could transform the world’s energy supply. Guided by advanced computer simulation, General Fusion is developing and optimizing each of these components in preparation to build a demonstration fusion power plant. Major advances in the company’s plasma fuel technology in March 2017 overcame key technical challenges, opening the way for development of an integrated prototype machine combining all aspects of the company’s fusion technology.
A major practical advantage, the liquid metal wall absorbs energy from the fusion reaction which can then be pumped to heat exchangers. The liquid metal also protects the solid outer wall from damage, and can be combined with liquid lithium to breed tritium within the power plant. Not requiring the exotic lasers or giant magnets found in other fusion approaches, steam pistons can be practically implemented in a commercial power plant.
Moving from proving theory to building a ‘proof-of-concept’ prototype machine
General fusion announced at the end of August that it had appointed two new executives as the company begins to transition its systems-level development activities into the development of a proof-of-concept fusion prototype machine. The new team members will enhance the company’s design engineering capabilities and strategic partnerships, and support General Fusion’s goal of developing the world’s first commercially viable fusion power plant. Fusion energy science is being developed on two fronts. There are large multibillion-dollar, government-backed efforts, like the $20 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, funded by the European Union, China, the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea and India.
And then there are a number of private companies, like Burnaby’s General Fusion, and Tri Alpha Energy Inc. in California, that are taking the Elon Musk approach – privately financed science projects. “The history of the company really started in 2009,” says Delage, “When the company had secured major investment capital and started to grow from a handful of employees to about 40 people. We’re about 70 today.” General Fusion is supported by a global syndicate of leading energy venture capital funds, industry leaders, and technology pioneers, including: Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, Bezos Expeditions, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Cenovus Energy, Growthworks, Braemar Energy Ventures, BDC, Entrepreneurs Fund, SET Ventures, and Sustainable Development Technology Canada. General Fusion is currently funded by private investors, but also receives subsidies from the Canadian government.
Delage says the program to build an actual prototype machine is expected to take about five years. He notes that, “For a long time, fusion was exclusively the province of governments and national labs, and the biggest programs in the world are still the large government research-driven agendas. They’re not necessarily so much looking at commercialization. But in the last 50 years or so, the emergence of private companies such as General Fusion have built on decades of scientific research and then adopted technology which has emerged elsewhere, like modern electronics and control systems, and applied them to the challenge of fusion, seeing the potential of commercialization.” He notes that of the dozen or so significant-size companies around the world with funding for fusion research, and defining those companies as ones having 50 to 60 or more employees, General Fusion is very much in the vanguard of those groups.
“So about eight years after our founding, fusion, which is the same process that powers the sun, is idealized as an energy source because the raw material, the fuel is hydrogen which is found in the ocean, and there’s enough on earth to last for several billion years. The by-product is helium, which is inert and safe, used in party balloons. So there are no emissions, no environmental footprint. There’s no chance of a melt-down or explosive hazard like you have in nuclear fission plants, and you can build it anywhere, it doesn’t rely on any particular raw material. So it really is on-demand power, when you need it, located close to sources where it is required, a solution to energy needs”
Delage continues, saying, “The problem is, you need conditions like you find in the centre of the sun in order to drive the reaction. So here on earth, those tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of degrees of heat can be very difficult technically to create. That has been the barrier that has been standing in the way of producing fusion for a long time.” This process, from the heat exchanger to the turbine and onward to the grid, is existing technology that is used in today’s coal, gas and nuclear power plants. To implement these electricity generation systems in a power plant, General Fusion will partner with engineering firms that specialize in this field.
“One has to ask oneself, where is the energy market in the world going? At the end of the day, fusion is a new energy source for the world and can be applied to produce electricity, it can be applied to produce electricity for industrial processes. So the market is where there is going to be demand. We’re looking at very turbulent times in power generation markets right now. Renewables are coming down in price, but they are often intermittent so if we’re going to use them, there’s need for a lot of storage. Combined, renewables and storage, renewables are still fairly expensive. Natural gas is now incredibly inexpensive, and it is certainly very competitive and can provide ‘on-demand’ power, but it produces CO2 emissions. So if you need carbon-free on-demand power, it looks like fusion has a great opportunity.”
“Even with great growth in renewables, there’s still probably half of the world’s energy demand that needs to be met if we’re going to get to zero carbon, and that makes about half of the world’s energy market available for fusion. It’s a huge opportunity and that’s what drives investment into companies such as General Fusion at this stage of technological development. The potential for something that is really transformative is there, and that’s pretty exciting.”
The first deployments of fusion power will certainly be installed power plants, but Delage says that within the company, they’ve had exercises around other applications. “One of the companies working on fusion is Lockheed Martin in its famed “Skunkworks” Division, which has been looking at possible applications such as marine. If you look at the large container ships, the speeds they can transit at really is driven by fuel efficiency. If you were able to take that constraint away, and say you have as much power as you need, and go as fast as you want, you change the dynamics of what’s possible in shipping and transport.”