General Fusion: A miniature sun rises in the west

Fusion power at a fraction of the cost

(Photo: General Fusion)

(Photo: General Fusion)

In space, stars are born and die every day. It’s less frequent that they do so inside of a warehouse in Burnaby, B.C. But that’s what General Fusion aims to do—at least in miniature.

Fusion power—pressing atoms together until they fuse into heavier elements and release energy, just like they do inside the sun’s core—is an old dream, and for just as long, a scientific bugbear. A seven-country consortium is spending 30 years and $17 billion on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor to prove fusion is commercially viable. General Fusion founder and president Michael Laberge believes he can do it much faster and cheaper.

The company is trying to blaze the fastest, most practical and lowest-cost path to commercial fusion power, with the near-term goal of developing a full-scale prototype fusion power plant for the comparative bargain of $500 million. In a field that’s long struggled to prove scientific doubters wrong (and attracted more than a few charlatans selling snake oil), Laberge’s efforts have been enough to attract serious investors like Cenovus Energy and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

In September, General Fusion added some serious scientific muscle to its team, appointing two renowned names in energy and technology circles to its board. Frederick W. Buckman, a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT, is a veteran energy executive and CEO of Powerlink Transmission Co.; Jacques Besnainou is the former president and CEO of Areva Group North America, a global player in nuclear power.

“The fact that quality people with their resumés are joining the company is a big vote of confidence in what General Fusion is doing,” says the company’s chairman, Rick Wills.

General Fusion’s system uses a sphere, filled with molten lead-lithium that is pumped to form a vortex. Plasma is injected into the vortex, and an array of pistons drives a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere to compress the plasma into fusion conditions. It would use abundant raw materials and produce no emissions or radioactive waste. That’s the idea, anyway.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice-president of business development, says there have been delays that have disrupted the company’s ideal timeline, but “that’s science.”

“We’re working hard to have a full prototype system in the next few years,” says Delage. “The goal we’re focused on right now is getting to the point where we can build that full-size complete prototype.”