How a Canadian fusion reactor could revolutionize the energy sector

For years no one took them seriously. Now it looks like their idea is just crazy enough to work

(Photos by Hubert Kang)

(Photographs by Hubert Kang)

Russ Ivanov, a Russian immigrant living in Vancouver, was surfing the web for news from his homeland back in 2009 when he first read about the crazy plan. According to a news article that caught his eye, a ragtag group of Canadian physicists was planning to build a working commercial thermonuclear reactor. A further search led Ivanov, then teaching math at a private school, to a story in a local community newspaper. It confirmed that a startup in the neighbouring municipality of Burnaby had set itself an ambitious goal: to be the first commercial enterprise in the history of the world to generate usable energy from fusion.

Ivanov immediately cold-called General Fusion’s then CEO, Doug Richardson. He had a lot of questions. What kind of technology were they using? What massive temperatures and densities were they trying to create, and for how many millionths of a second?

A few days later he called back again. Ivanov had worked on fusion research in Russia and Germany. He ended up joining the company, among the first of the dozen-odd PhDs that populate the 65-member staff.

Ivanov’s story is just one example of the serendipity involved in this small Canadian company’s rise to the forefront of a worldwide race to harness nuclear fusion, a race that has been going on fitfully, consuming tens of billions of mostly public dollars, for more than half a century. (All existing reactors operate using nuclear fission, rather than fusion, which is a very different process.) Started in 2002 by a successful corporate scientist in the throes of a midlife crisis, General Fusion has already outlasted past private-sector attempts to commercialize fusion energy. Instead of petering out, it’s garnered the attention and respect of a small but growing cadre of scientists, energy executives and adventurous investors around the world.

Fusion research is now moving from the whiteboard and academic papers to working reactors. In the south of France, a consortium of the world’s major nations (with the notable exception of Canada) is building a US$23-billion facility known as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It is scheduled to begin operation in 2020.

Meanwhile in February the U.S.-government funded National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California, known for housing the world’s most powerful laser, reported experiments indicating they were close to achieving “net gain,” where more total energy comes out than was put in—a goal that has eluded scientists for six decades.

If being the first to net gain was all that mattered, General Fusion might as well pack up its plasma injector and go home. But instead, possibly as early as this year, the company will begin work on a full-size prototype reactor. At the centre will be a sphere, three metres in diameter, inside which molten lead swirls at high speed creating a vacuum, or vortex, in the middle. Arrayed around it will be 200 to 300 pistons, each the size of a cannon. Firing in perfect harmony, they will create an acoustic wave that collapses the vortex at the very moment a plasma injector shoots hydrogen isotopes, the nuclear fuel, into it. If General Fusion has its physics right, the heat and pressure will ignite a fusion reaction that spins off countless neutrons which will heat the lead even more. Pumped through a heat exchanger, that hot lead will help generate steam just like a conventional thermal power plant.

Getting the reactor to work once is the easy part. Getting it to work repeatedly and cost effectively for power production, that’s harder. And that explains why, as the fusion age dawns, there is ever more interest in what this small, slightly dishevelled Canadian company is doing. In a scientific community that is starting to talk about fusion in terms of pennies per kilowatt-hour, General Fusion aims to build a cheaper alternative to the multi-billion-dollar reactor designs. It wants to solve the world’s energy dilemma on a practical level, not just a theoretical one.

Still, one can’t help but ask: Is there any profit to be had trying to create a man-made sun in a Vancouver-area industrial park? Nathan Gilliland, who was hired in February as General Fusion’s new CEO, thinks the company can outperform the government-funded efforts. He previously founded biomass energy company Harvest Power and worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. Gilliland notes private company Solara bested the government-funded Human Genome Project by hitting important milestones first, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX found a way to send rockets into space for a fifth the cost of a NASA launch. “Speed and practicality are what private innovation does best,” he says. “We’ve started to create something that might just have a breakthrough here.”

Fusion would produce no waste and its fuel can be extracted from seawater

Fusion would produce no waste and its fuel can be extracted from seawater

To understand fusion is to understand where most of the energy we use here on earth originates. The sun is mostly composed of hydrogen. More precisely, it’s composed of plasma, super-heated gas made up of hydrogen’s constituent isotopes, deuterium and tritium—the smallest and most basic atoms. Under the sun’s conditions of extreme heat and density, deuterium and tritium fuse together to form helium atoms, giving off still more heat in the process.

So, scientists have been asking for six decades, what if we could spark up fusion on command? We’ve already done that with the opposite reaction, fission—the breaking of large atoms into smaller particles—which leaves us with the troublesome byproduct of radioactive waste. By contrast, fusion would produce no waste, just inert helium, and its fuel can be extracted from seawater. Moreover, it should take even less fuel than a fission reactor does to produce a lot of energy.

Solar fusion, though, happens in space, where there’s nothing to contaminate the reaction. The fundamental challenge to replicating and sustaining it on earth is containment of the plasma: how can you get it that hot without vaporizing the reactor walls and having that foreign matter snuff the sunburst like rain on a campfire?

Over six decades, scientific consensus has coalesced around two answers: magnetic and inertial confinement. The magnetic camp, which includes ITER, aims to suspend the plasma in a magnetic field within a doughnut-shaped chamber known as a tokamak. The inertial confinement experts, such as those at NIF, are attempting to ignite a fusion reaction by firing powerful lasers at plasma contained in a pellet the size of a pea.

The magnetized target fusion that General Fusion is attempting is what’s known as an “alternate concept,” which shares elements from both other concepts, explains Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a Washington, D.C.–based non-profit aimed at sharing knowledge and furthering the global research effort. Stacked as most fusion scientists are in favour of one mainstream technology or the other, they struggle to keep an open mind with regard to the opposite side’s ideas. “I can’t tell you that people are all excited about [General Fusion’s] program in the fusion community, but they are a credible group in this smaller niche,” says Dean, who has invited the company to present at his association’s past three annual meetings. Indeed, the invitations are coming ever more frequently. Last fall General Fusion made presentations at the World Energy Congress in Daegu, South Korea, and at workshops hosted by the Chinese Academy of Physics and the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Still, there are naysayers. In the pages of the scientific journal Physics in Canada in 2010, Eric Vogt, director emeritus of the TRIUMF nuclear accelerator at the University of British Columbia, described General Fusion as “unproven science masquerading as achievable technology.”

Technicians at General Fusion have been known to obtain supplies from Costco

Technicians at General Fusion have been known to obtain supplies from Costco

Occupying two nondescript buildings at the end of a light-industrial cul-de-sac, General Fusion’s headquarters bring to mind a super-sized tinkerer’s garage. One building houses the plasma injector, resembling a lunar capsule, swathed in tubes and wires and shielded from the offices nearby by steel dividers decked in blast-proof tiles. The other contains a one-metre-wide model of the spherical reactor core, studded with 14 pistons like a pincushion.

The company chose its current location in part because it’s built on solid bedrock at the foot of Burnaby Mountain, capable of withstanding the pulses from the pistons. The landlord nearly fainted, Richardson recalls, on the day he walked in to see excavators digging a trench in the floor to contain the pipes and pumps handling the liquid lead that spins within the core.

The reception area is undergoing a facelift, at the insistence of the board of directors. The rest of the facility is the domain of woolly-headed scientists, engineers and technicians who place little stock in appearances.

Chief among them is Dr. Michel Laberge who, upon turning 40 in 2001, quit his job as a senior physicist and principal engineer at Creo Inc., a printing technology company. He wanted to apply his talents toward something more ambitious, more meaningful. Given that his PhD from UBC was in plasma physics, nuclear fusion—potentially a solution to mankind’s damaging dependence on fossil fuels—was a natural choice. He chose to investigate magnetized target fusion, a branch of research abandoned in the 1980s. Part of the problem at that time was the lack of diagnostic and synchronization technology available then to build a working reactor. That technology, he noted, had improved since.

He raised money from family, friends and the federal government and built a rudimentary reactor, no bigger than a kitchen range. It was nothing much, but something happened with the plasma reactions he generated therein. Sensors detected excess neutrons, suggesting at least a few hydrogen atoms had fused. “I called them my marketing neutrons,” Laberge later joked.

It was then, in 2006, that Laberge persuaded Richardson, his team leader and partner on a number of projects at Creo, to join the venture. The pair brought on Michael Brown, a sort of godfather of tech finance in B.C,, and his Chrysalix venture capital firm. Brown would serve as chairman until 2012. They also lured a handful of serious scientists away from comfortable, tenured jobs at universities and big companies. The attraction: the chance to stop studying and modelling fusion, and actually make the machine go.

The cultural chasm between General Fusion and competing government labs could not be more stark. Some of the potential hires Richardson interviewed had worked in fusion for 15 years without ever once turning a screw. Others he’s come across will say, “I could never work here. I don’t have anybody expecting results. I just have to publish some papers.”

Even less like a public research lab, Laberge and Richardson set themselves a deadline, as they had done developing products for Creo: four years to net gain. They would get more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put in by the summer of 2013. Unfortunately, plasma would prove more stubborn than designing a new thermal printing head. In 2011 General Fusion had what at first looked like a successful test of its plasma injector, a funnel-shaped machine where plasma is created from super-heated hydrogen gas. “The plasma looked beautiful,” Richardson recalls. It was the temperature sensors that the scientists were beginning to suspect. Sure enough, the plasma was cooling down too quickly as it travelled the length of the injector. They knew that they would need to get a better handle on plasma before building a full-size prototype.

“That’s where we’ve had our ups and downs, getting the plasma where it’s hot enough and dense enough and lasts long enough…before we compress it,” concedes Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice-president, strategy and corporate development. As for the deadline to net gain, “We’re a little more humble in terms of exact dates these days.”

Fortunately, the company has grown and evolved on the corporate front too, which has given it more wiggle room. In 2011 a new round of financing brought the total raised up to $50 million. In addition to earlier investors, who anted up again, some notable new money joined the group. One was Bezos Expeditions, the venture capital arm of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The other was Cenovus Energy, a major player in Canada’s oilsands. “Cenovus is impressed by General Fusion’s innovative, pragmatic approach,” executive vice-president Judy Fairburn explained in a release announcing the $3.8-million investment from the oil company’s Environmental Opportunity Fund. “As world energy demand increases, we’ll need all types of energy to meet those needs. Fusion technology has the potential to revolutionize energy production.”

No longer this quirky startup from La-la Land, General Fusion was attracting international attention. Along with that came a new chairman, Rick Wills, the chair and CEO of measurement equipment maker Tektronix, out of Portland, Ore. General Fusion also established an advisory board of experts in various aspects of commercializing fusion power and added impressive figures to its board like Jacques Besnainou, the former president and CEO of Areva Group North America, and Frederick Buckman, who held executive positions with various utilities as well as the Shaw Power Group, an engineering and construction outfit. They all bring expertise that will be useful to the company as it plots its long-term strategy. “This kind of technology does not come out of one company on its own,” says Delage. It will require a consortium of power companies, turbine manufacturers, plant designers and builders to make it competitive with existing sources of energy. Moreso than either government-funded labs or venture-capital-backed rivals, General Fusion has reached out to create a community of partners.

The approach is a shrewd one in the opinion of Dallas Kachan, head of Kachan & Co., a San Francisco–based clean-tech research and consulting firm. Not only does it spread around the risks of commercialization, but also ensures continued funding in the increasingly bearish VC market for green energy. “As the company runs out of reasons why the technology won’t work, and gets closer and closer to illustrating that it will work, I think it’s entirely possible that they will raise the billions of dollars they will need to prove this concept out,” he says, noting that it was Cenovus’s investment, more than that of Bezos, that turned heads among investors.

Another guiding principle that General Fusion has kept despite its growing credibility and business focus is frugality. Only the cheapest, most readily available materials go into the machine. Technicians working there have been known to obtain supplies from the Costco store around the block. “You can study plasma-facing surfaces for 10 years or you can go to your local coating supplier and say, ‘Make me five of these and do this, this, this and this,” says Richardson. “Before long you’re an expert in how these things perform.”

For example, General Fusion turned to a local dry-ice company to help clean microscopic carbon soot from its plasma injector. An array of spectrometers used to measure what’s happening with the plasma came from Photon Control, a nearby company managers had spotted while driving past.

A bigger venue will be needed when the time comes to build the full-size prototype, featuring a three-metre-diameter sphere, between 200 and 300 pistons and plasma injector all connected together. It’s expected to take at least three years to build. Ideally, that process will begin before this year is out. The mechanical aspect—getting pistons to fire synchronously within 10 microseconds of each other—is pretty much ready. So is the computer modelling, an essential leg up in the effort to make the reaction work in the real world. What continues to bedevil General Fusion’s efforts is the damned plasma. The team has to get the combination of energy and confinement to a level that sustains, even for a fraction of a second, the conditions in which fusion energy is released.

And the clock is ticking, faster than for its public-sector rivals. “We’re a privately funded fusion company. Private money is not necessarily patient money, especially if it’s a VC. We are always in a rush,” Richardson says.

Fusion Power Associates’ Dean, a 50-year veteran of the research effort, believes there is a role for private companies in fusion research. Even if the big public-sector research projects succeed in sparking up a fusion fire first, the cost of actually building power plants would be prohibitive. Therefore the private firms’ search for a cheaper, faster shortcut is essential, if less assured of success. Other private ventures have set out to master fusion, made some initial progress, but run out of capital and investors’ patience when it came time to scale up to the next level. Rigatron, a San Diego company, fizzled this way. So did a collaboration between Phillips Petroleum and General Atomics.

But does a VC-backed, for-profit company stand any chance of making money while attempting to solve the world’s energy problems? “There will be multiple winners as this thing matures, and we certainly hope we’re one of them,” says Gilliland.

It’s impossible to say whether a company like General Fusion can contribute anything important to this global energy quest, Dean confesses. “You’ll only know when success proves the point.”