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General Fusion: A scientific challenge like no other

Michel Laberge thinks he can solve the fusion energy puzzle after generations of scientists have tried and faltered.

(Part II)

For General Fusion, the chance to solve the puzzle of fusion energy and potentially usher in an age of clean, unlimited power is both a public quest and a personal challenge. For a startup with live-or-die milestones ahead, there is no second prize for trying hard. Either fame or failure awaits the Burnaby company as it works to both break new scientific ground and commercialize the outcome.

“That’s the target. I want to make a big mark. I want to save the planet. I want my kids to have enough energy for their lives to go on,” says founder Michel Laberge.

CEO Doug Richardson says if you want to solve engineering problems, go big or go home.

“I was always reasonably good in my career at commercializing challenging technologies and problem-solving. And at one point I remember saying at one point in my life, if I’m going to work on problems, let’s choose a real tough one. You have to challenge yourself. So I knew Michel and he asked me to join him. I said, that’s a good problem. Let’s solve that one.”

As with many other technical innovations, the origins of fusion energy are connected with warfare. In the 1930s, the rise of Nazi Germany and the threat of war provided a stimulus for scientists on both sides of the conflict to turn Albert Einstein’s famous E=MC2 theory into a destructive reality. Einstein himself wrote to President Roosevelt warning of the danger, citing Germany’s control of Czechoslovakia’s uranium mines as a sign enemy scientists had the potential of creating devastating weapons.

Fearing the worst, the U.S. and Britain focused their resources into the Manhattan Project; from the blackboard to Hiroshima, the development of a fission device took a scant seven years.

A fusion bomb, otherwise known as a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb, followed seven years later in 1952 and was detonated over the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. But while U.S. military scientists were able to produce this fusion event, it was uncontrolled energy; the hydrogen bomb could only be detonated through a fission explosion first. The weapon was basically an atomic bomb with a fusion multiplier.

The H-bomb was a devastating weapon but the technology was totally unsuited for commercial energy. In hindsight, creating nuclear weapons and controlled fission in the form of nuclear energy was easy. Meanwhile, sixty years have gone by in the quest for fusion energy, and it evades us still.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that global energy consumption will increase by 53% between 2008 and 2035, with most of that growth coming from the long-term economic expansion in Asian countries. Despite higher oil prices—projected to reach roughly US$125 per barrel by 2035—oil consumption is expected to rise 23% by 2035.

More troubling for environmentalists is that coal consumption is expected to rise 50% from 139 quadrillion to 209 quadrillion Btu, again mostly because of economic growth in India and China. Electricity consumption, powered largely by coal, but increasingly by natural gas and renewable energy sources, will grow by 84% by 2035.

These trends are part of the reason oil company Cenovus Energy made an investment in General Fusion. According to David Hassan, a VP at Cenovus Environmental Opportunity Fund, the company is looking at all forms of energy and saw Laberge’s company as one that had great promise.

“It’s very risky—to quote Laberge, ‘outrageously ambitious’—but if it works, it is truly a breakthrough for clean, green energy and we wanted to be part of that,” Hassan says.

“Outrageously ambitious” is also a good way to describe Laberge, who was once a student of laser fusion before deciding the process wouldn’t work. He spent nearly a decade in the corporate world building high-end printers, not, it should be pointed out, manipulating plasma fuel for fusion experiments. But he nonetheless thinks he can outsmart a couple generations of physicists by developing a faster, cheaper, easier path to fusion energy on a shop floor in Burnaby with parts from Canadian Tire.

“At the time (after he left printing company Creo Inc.), I was somewhat knowledgeable about laser fusion, but I was not working on the fusion bit of it,” he says. “So I was in no way totally an expert in fusion. But I decided to start a company and I’m going to beat all those thousands of physicists.”

Laberge breaks into laughter. “So you need to be a bit of an ass to do that. You’ve got to have the confidence in yourself to pull off such an unlikely thing.”

But according to Laberge, another unlikely thing is commercial success from the conventional pursuits of fusion because of the multi-billion dollar price tags. The lasers at NIF and the giant magnets at ITER cost billions.

But the General Fusion team is not above doing a bit of scrounging to get by. Richardson, who worked with Laberge at Creo, recalls passing by a heap of hardware ready for the dump while visiting the Los Alamos lab with Laberge. The scientific refuse were capacitors from one of the most powerful lasers of the 1980s and 1990s, the Nova. The rescued capacitors are now powering General Fusion’s plasma injectors. In another area of the lab, power is supplied by 100 ordinary car batteries.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s VP of business development, says that being frugal in the development stage has an end purpose.

“The technology that you put in, even at this stage, can have an impact on your ability to commercialize. If you look at ITER, they plan to have multi-story super-conducting magnets that have to be maintained at -270 degrees Celsius. Less than a metre away they have plasma that is 150 million degrees Celsius. The engineering challenges are tremendous, but it also makes it expensive. So if you can avoid technologies like that, you allow yourself a path to commercialization that is a lot less expensive and a lot faster.”

Laberge and CEO Doug Richardson developed their business acumen at Creo in the 1990s. Laberge was a senior physicist and the chief engineer and used his laser expertise to help develop high-end laser printers. Richardson worked in various roles from systems engineer to director of business development.

“When you are in the academic world, you can be a bit of a dreamer. There are no time constraints, there are no money worries and everything is in a bit of a cloud. But when you work in an industry, you have to make money, you have to work fast, you have to deliver on time and you have to build things that work. So I became a little bit more realistic during those ten years. I became a real guy in those years, instead of a dreamer,” Laberge says.

If Laberge has a shadow of a doubt that his company won’t achieve viable fusion energy, he hides it well. He is infectiously enthusiastic about the project and direct about the high risks involved.

But on the day of his telephone interview, he is more concerned that a leak in a pipe is knocking the group off its aggressive schedule than he is about the wider ramifications of solving the world’s energy problems.

One of his last projects with Creo was to invent a cross-connect optical switch for the transfer of data through optical fibre. Giants like Lucent, Nortel and Bell Labs were pursuing the problem with much larger budgets. Laberge says he had a million dollars, five guys and six months to beat the competition, which he did.

“That inflated my head a little. The little guy can beat the big guys with way less money and way less effort if he tried it differently with a different approach. The key point is that I wasn’t trying to beat (the competition) on their turf, I was trying to do something different. And it seemed to work pretty good,” Laberge says.

With a background in physics, a decade of engineering wins in the corporate world and an admittedly swollen ego about his own abilities, Laberge became bored with Creo and left in 2001 with a comfortable pile of money from the company’s success.

Once again returning to the predicament of extracting excess energy from fusion, Laberge toiled on his sofa, rereading all the previous research. There was no Eureka moment, he says. It took several months of contemplation to realize that an extremely promising fusion project, Linus, provided the basis for a solution.

Now Laberge and his team are building their reactor based on the pioneering work of Linus, which began 35 years ago, with the addition of today’s servo-systems technology and the latest in plasma research.

But there are many threats to success and even some who question whether General Fusion should be taken seriously at all.

Next: Detractors and proponents of General Fusion (Part III)

The corporate world’s tiniest player in the race for fusion energy.