14 Jan How Canada can become a leader in fusion energy – Opinion Piece
Last week, The Vancouver Sun ran a story from The Edmonton Journal about progress in the field of fusion energy and asked whether Canada “could be left in the dust in terms of research.”
While Canada has not had a national fusion program since the 1990s, there is an internationally recognized fusion effort right here in Metro Vancouver: General Fusion. And by far the largest concentration of fusion research and development in this country is also right here, at General Fusion’s Burnaby headquarters. With the progress the company is making and activity building around the world, the time is right to look at the opportunity for Canada in fusion energy.
General Fusion has been invited to participate in the Natural Resources Canada roundtables on energy innovation and competitiveness taking place in Vancouver this week. We’ll point out that there may be no bigger long-term opportunity for Canada and British Columbia than to play a critical role in the development of a global fusion energy industry, by building on the work at General Fusion and elsewhere.
Around the world, nations are pressing forward with efforts to harness fusion energy, the same process that powers the stars. Fusion energy is released when hydrogen atoms are forced together at high temperatures to make helium. The technology is tremendously challenging, yet there is no denying that the potential of fusion is enormous: unlimited, safe, emission-free energy. The fuel can be extracted from sea water, so power can be produced anywhere in the world, and the fuel supply will last for hundreds of millions of years. Fusion energy does not depend on any scarce resources. It is knowledge-based energy: if you have the knowledge, you can produce energy.
The governments of Europe, the United States, China, Japan, India, Russia and Korea are collaborating on a major fusion project called ITER, now under construction in the south of France. While often absent from today’s frequent policy discussions on energy, fusion has quietly pushed forward and is advancing beyond the experimental phase. The question has become when, not if, fusion will emerge as a dominant technology in the energy landscape.
Canada’s opportunity to capitalize on fusion is not to tag along on other country’s efforts but to build on our strengths and competitive advantages, and lead in the development of critical fusion technologies.
In the 1990s, Canada’s fusion program built on existing strengths in developing fusion fuelling technology. Today, smaller Canadian centres of fusion-relevant research exist at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Alberta, and at Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario. The National Research Council has capabilities that can be brought to bear as well.
General Fusion’s plasma injector subsystems — the largest ever constructed — can trace their heritage to the work done by that national fusion program. Started by Canadian physicist Dr. Michel Laberge in 2003, General Fusion has grown to a staff of 65 and is attracting attention from around the world. Privately funded by the likes of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Alberta-based Cenovus Energy, Vancouver’s Chrysalix Energy Ventures, Growthworks, BDC, and with the support of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, General Fusion has rapidly developed into the recognized world leader in a branch of fusion energy technology called Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF). Enabled by modern electronics, materials, and motivated, entrepreneurial leadership, momentum is building behind MTF because of its potential as a faster, more practical, and lower cost path to fusion energy.
In the last six months, General Fusion’s leaders have been invited to speak at major international conferences including the World Energy Congress in Korea and ITER’s major annual conference in Monaco. Last September, Chinese researchers hosted General Fusion for a 2-day workshop on MTF, recognizing the progress the firm has made.
General Fusion has attracted PhDs from fusion research institutions in Russia, the UK, Japan, MIT and the University of California. The company has undertaken research partnerships with universities in Canada such as McGill, Queen’s, and the University of Victoria, as well as national laboratories in the US and elsewhere. Industry is coming to the table as well, with former CEOs of Tektronix, AREVA Inc., and Consumers Energy joining General Fusion’s Board.
As Canadians, we should be proud to see that bold, innovative entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, investors, and companies have come together to develop and pursue an opportunity that can reshape the world economy and deliver tremendous benefits for all Canadians.
Michael Delage is vice-president, Strategy and Corporate Development at General Fusion Inc.