Crowdsourcing Fusion: The Results of General Fusion’s Anvil Seal Challenge

We have a winner!

In April, General Fusion launched our first crowdsourced engineering challenge in hopes of finding a clever new way to seal components of our fusion system in a manner that will better survive extreme impacts, pressure and heat.

We’re pleased to announce that Kirby Meacham of Cleveland, OH has claimed the $20,000 prize for his “Metallic Pressure-Balanced Anvil Seal” design. Kirby is an MIT-trained mechanical engineer with over 30 years of design experience and quite a reputation as an inventor: he has his name on 35 US patents.

General Fusion is the world leader in Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) research and development. In General Fusion’s MTF power plant, hammers will strike anvils that fit inside holes on the surface of a molten-metal-filled sphere, and the resulting impact will generate pressure waves that compress hot hydrogen gas (“plasma”) to fusion conditions. One of many technical challenges we face is that 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 chose this gnarly problem for our first-ever crowdsourced challenge, which we appropriately titled “Method for Sealing Anvil under Repetitive Impacts Against Molten Metal”.

With enough time ad resources, we’re pretty sure we could have solved this problem ourselves, but we figured that for a problem like this – a tricky engineering problem, but one that is not directly related to fusion – there should be a large number of people out there with relevant experience and expertise who could help us solve it, maybe even quicker and cheaper than if we went at it alone.

Well, it turns out this assumption was correct, and we saw over 60 proposed solutions from 17 different countries.

The challenge asked solvers for a written submission detailing their design, and did not require them to build the seal (not many people have in their basements a rig for high-speed hammer impacts against an anvil sealing a molten metal vessel), so the next step is for General Fusion to integrate Kirby’s ideas into their design and testing cycle (note that we can’t actually discuss the details of Kirby’s design as this process may generate one or more patents).

After the challenge closed, we caught up with Kirby and asked him to discuss why he decided to work on this challenge. “As a mechanical engineer and inventor with a long interest in fusion power, working on a hard mechanical problem which could advance fusion technology was irresistible,” he said. “I was able to draw from my knowledge of high temperature seal technology gained by recent work on reduced friction piston rings for internal combustion engines. Not uncommon when tackling problems like this one, I started over once and woke up many nights thinking about molten metal and pressures that distort tool steel.”

Thinking back to when we put this challenge together, Kirby Meacham is a perfect example of one type of solver that we wanted to reach: he’s a seasoned engineer with decades of relevant experience, a long list of patents, and a pair of degrees from MIT! We also saw engagement from other target demographics, like young engineers with some fresh ideas, and garage-type tinkerers. This is the beauty of crowdsourcing innovation: tapping into distributed knowledge by looking outside of our organization for ideas from a wide range of people and industries.

The anvil seal challenge was hosted by InnoCentive, who have conducted similar successful challenges with industry leading organizations such as NASA and Procter & Gamble. Details of this closed challenge can still be found on InnoCentive’s website. We’re going to run a few more crowdsourced challenges through InnoCentive this year – 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. One of our upcoming challenges will look to the crowd for new insights on General Fusion’s experimental plasma physics data.

So stay tuned, keep your pencils sharp – and tell your friends!