Crowdsourcing Fusion

General Fusion is a small company trying to solve a big problem. Our team of 65 (physicists, engineers and technologists) is working on proving that our approach to fusion is the quickest and most practical. We’ve got quite a few talented, smart people here, but we know that there are many talented, smart people elsewhere.

That’s exactly why General Fusion launched our first crowdsourced engineering challenge last week. We’ve described in detail a technical challenge for which we need an innovative solution, put out a cash prize for the best solution that meets our needs, and opened it up to the entire world to solve.

The challenge is titled “Method for Sealing Anvil Under Repetitive Impacts Against Molten Metal” and it seeks ideas for ways to seal our “anvil” into the “sphere” of our fusion system in a manner that will survive long term operation. This is an engineering problem that we need to solve in order to turn our fusion technology into a commercial power plant.

A quick primer on our approach to fusion: in a General Fusion power plant, we will spin hot, molten lead-lithium inside a steel sphere really fast until a vortex opens up in the liquid metal – just like the one you see when you drain your bathtub. We will inject our plasma fuel (really hot ionized hydrogen gas) into that vortex, and then we’ll collapse the vortex, compressing the plasma until it gets really, really hot and fuses into helium. This fusion process releases energy, which we will extract to make electricity.

One of General Fusion’s major breakthroughs is the way we collapse the vortex: by simultaneously striking the surface of the sphere with a few hundred pistons, or hammers, sending an acoustic pressure wave to the center of the sphere (where the plasma is!). The spherical vessel containing the plasma is like a “Wiffleball” in that it has a bunch of holes – one where each hammer impacts. Inside each hole is a cylindrical plug – we call them anvils – and the hammer strikes that anvil, which moves back and forth a few millimeters on each impact, transferring the energy into the molten lead-lithium.

1m sphere noting anvil and anvil seal location

Compression system prototype noting anvil and anvil seal locations

If you’ve got an engineering background or a tinkerer’s mindset you might now see the challenge. We have hot molten lead-lithium inside the sphere, which is full of holes. The anvils need to plug these holes, so we need some type of seal around them – but the anvils also need to be free to move – and the seal needs to survive these big impacts, which happen once every second, over and over again – and everything is really hot.

We already have a seal that allows us to develop our core fusion technology by building power plant scale prototype devices (like the pistons and anvils), and we’ve used this to build a proof of concept sphere with fourteen of these piston and anvil assemblies in order to study and optimize the collapsing vortex. Now we’re looking for a seal that will survive impacts once a second for years at a time, or tens of millions of impacts per year.

This is an example of a problem that we believe we could solve ourselves, but doing so will take time and resources, and will probably involve us learning the hard way what won’t work. We think there could be people out there who have already worked on similar problems and who have already learned these lessons – engineers at other firms, or researchers at universities or labs – or maybe there’s someone who will come up with a really clever idea.

This is the beauty of crowdsourcing innovation: tapping into distributed knowledge by looking outside of our organization for ideas from a wide range of industries. This challenge was posted about 24 hours before I wrote this piece, at which time we already had over 50 active “project rooms” – that’s greater than the number of engineers at General Fusion!

The anvil seal challenge is being hosted by InnoCentive, and details of the challenge and eligibility requirements can be found on its website. InnoCentive has conducted similar successful challenges with industry leading organizations such as NASA and Procter & Gamble. We’re going to run a few crowdsourced challenges through InnoCentive this year, and we’re excited to see what kind of creative ideas the world comes up with. This is a great opportunity for General Fusion to engage the public, offering a chance for anyone to contribute to our mission of creating abundant, clean, safe and affordable energy.

So if you fancy yourself an inventor and if you’ve always wanted to change the world, here’s your chance.