General Fusion: Eminent scientists debate the merits of a critical energy project

General Fusion plans to build a reactor that will provide sustainable clean energy. Will it really work?

General Fusion’s experimental Plasma Injector (Trevor Melanson)

Part III

Whether or not General Fusion finds a successful path to creating a new form of energy, the company certainly has a polarizing effect on people.

On one hand, the startup has managed to receive funding from Bezos Expeditions, Jeff Bezos’ venture capital company, joining companies like Twitter that have been the recipients of such lofty attention. General Fusion has also received funding from the Canadian government’s Sustainable Development Technology fund (SDTC) and Cenovus Energy, in addition to scoring a research partnership with one of the U.S.’s leading scientific centres, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

On the other hand, the tiny company in Burnaby has been derided for making clean energy plans based on unproven physics, leaving one wondering just where the truth really lies.

One of Canada’s leading particle physicists, Erich Vogt, is unapologetically damning in his criticism, which appeared in a journal, Physics in Canada, two years ago. Professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Vogt was one of the founders of TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory of nuclear and particle physics in Vancouver. The Order of Canada recipient characterizes General Fusion’s lab as “Cloud Cuckooland” and “unproven science in the guise of technology development.”

General Fusion’s founder Michel Laberge and CEO Doug Richardson have embarked on a scientific quest with quite astounding ramifications if all the science and engineering proves successful. Based on previous research and work in the field of plasma physics, the two former Creo laser printing employees believe they can build a reactor to fuse hydrogen atoms together by pneumatically-driven pistons and produce enormous increases in energy. If the company can control and contain this energy, it would have a positive impact on the problem of carbon emissions and climate change in the decades to come. If all goes well, a working prototype could be finished by 2015, and a working reactor is planned for the end of the decade. Commercial production could take place ten years after that.

Government-funded mega-projects like the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the U.S. and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Europe are pursuing the fusion energy puzzle by different methods, but are cushioned by multi-billion budgets.

But while successful commercial energy from these projects could be decades away, assuming they succeed, Dr. Vogt believes General Fusion will likely be compared to the Cold Fusion experiments of the 1990s—science that was all hype with no validity.

“What they want to do is to get 600 mega joules in an explosion every second, which is the equivalent of 100 kg of TNT in a three meter cube. But even getting one mega joule without this fancy system of pistons would be so amazing that I and others would nominate it for the Nobel Prize,” Vogt said in a recent interview.

Vogt says that he is not pessimistic about ITER and NIF producing “interesting” science and making progress toward fusion energy after several decades have gone by. But several major problems have to be overcome first, such as the rapid dissipation of heat in a reaction. Vogt lays out not one but six major scientific problems the General Fusion team would have to solve to bring their research to fruition.

“And they were talking glibly to their investors about selling a reactor with 600 mj (of energy) in a few years. I mean that’s just pie in the sky,” Vogt says.

As well as being highly skeptical of the science behind General Fusion’s designs, Vogt is critical of the way the company received financing from SDTC, claiming it ducked the normal process of receiving government funding. He says developments of this kind should be funded by the National Sciences and Engineering Council, which would have included a peer review—something he thinks the company would have failed.

CEO Doug Richardson refuted Vogt’s claims in Physics in Canada. And fortunately for General Fusion, it has friends in high places. Dr. T. Kenneth Fowler, a plasma physics professor at Berkley, was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1987 and his approval of General Fusion was in no small way responsible for opening doors for and helping it get funded.

The author of The Fusion Quest, Fowler has worked and directed high-level projects at leading U.S. laboratories, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore fusion lab (which now houses NIF); in addition, he was the American representative for ITER. He was also on the scientific committee that buried the Cold Fusion experiments. Why this esteemed scientist would want to reach out and support a miniscule Canadian company run by two guys from the printing industry is an odd tale.

Fowler just happened to chance upon a seminar that Laberge was giving in 2007 at the University of California at Davis.

“Michel came down to give a talk. Of course, all such talks are crazy—if they weren’t, why would you go? But my take on it was, everything is crazy, but (to paraphrase George Orwell), some ideas are crazier than others. And this may be the best idea I’ve heard. It probably resonated with me because I published a paper that wasn’t all that different. (General Fusion) just went for a shorter time scale.”

Fowler became a booster for the company. In 2008 he prepared a report for two venture capital companies on a technical analysis on the startup.

Although he knew the General Fusion’s project would not be without problems, he staked his reputation on giving it his approval.

Fowler’s report reads as follows:

“One can ask why General Fusion might succeed where others failed. The reason I think is that General Fusion is seizing on a unique opportunity when government programs are fully committed to supporting NIF and ITER. In the U.S. small department programs collateral to ITER do exist but established researchers funded by these programs are also already committed to ideas that either represent small departures from ITER or very radical departures. General Fusion has chosen the middle ground, harking back to the Linus project 30 years ago but never tested.”

Dr. Peter Turchi, who worked on fusion experiments in the 1970s, including Linus for the U.S. Naval Research Lab, also concludes that General Fusion has several technical advantages now that could help them succeed.

Turchi has answered all of Vogt’s criticisms. For example, Vogt says that the General Fusion reactor must run on a constant stream of tritium, the fuel for the fusion reaction. This radioactive isotope of hydrogen is only manufactured in nuclear power plants and would cost any fusion generator $100 million per week. That makes any fusion reactor impractical even if the science and engineering work perfectly.

That leaves General Fusion’s dreams of commercial fusion energy dead in the water, Vogt says. However, Turchi counters and says that the engineering behind tritium production is reasonably straightforward and not a showstopper. In fact, he said General Fusion’s reactor design has some engineering advantages over ITER’s and NIF’s designs, which would ease the manufacture of tritium.

In a larger context, the conflict between General Fusion’s vision and the criticism it generates illustrates the problem of the orthodox and the heretical in the science world, says Turchi. Scientists compete for research funding and the funding thus stimulates research in a particular area, while other areas of research are ignored. Well-funded scientific endeavors encourage like-minded scientists who follow established lines of thought. What isn’t funded obviously isn’t pursued and isn’t researched.

The governments of the world have been convinced that NIF and ITER, multi-year, multi-billion dollar projects, need to be built because they have been told that there is no faster and cheaper way to solve the fusion energy puzzle. Having General Fusion, a private company, announce it can do it in a shorter time span for a fraction of the cost is sacrilege.

“I came up with a phrase a long time ago that I attribute to Galileo’s last project officer; ‘There’s no virtue in tolerating heresy, much less funding it,’” says Turchi.

“Basically, it means any alternative approaches have to be suppressed. You can’t have a guy testifying in congress that he needs a billion dollars and that this is the right way to go (for research) and then have some other outfit or university professor saying, ‘oh I know how to do it for $10 million.’”

Turchi offers the history of aviation as an example; in the mid-nineteenth century, if a government wanted to pursue aeronautical research, it would have focused on the most established developments in that area, namely balloons. No government would have financed an experiment into heavier-than-air craft because it was just unheard of.

No one would believe in the potential of these experiments until the Wright brothers dramatically proved otherwise. For General Fusion, acceptance may have to wait until they can prove their experiment will work as well.

Part I The corporate world’s tiny player in the race for fusion energy

Part II A scientific challenge like no other