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Sold-out conference promises to provoke and inspire. Michel Laberge, who has made a life’s career out of developing a cheap and environmentally safe form of energy, has a vision that within 10 years the need for hydroelectric dams and coal-fired power plants will be a thing of the past. In their place will be fusion power plants that convert hydrogen into helium extracted from sea water. If that sounds far-fetched, it isn’t. Laberge, a Burnaby-based physicist, is among a handful of privately funded scientists who say they are within striking distance of building a commercially viable fusion power plant.

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.

During my autumn travel to the Canadian West Coast I was given the opportunity to visit yet another High Tech Start-up with a vision no less radical and bold than D-Wave's. I have written about General Fusion before, and it was a treat to tour their expanding facility, and to ask any question I could think of. The company made some news when they attracted  investment from Jeff Bezos, but despite this new influx of capital, in the world of fusion research, they are operating on a shoe-string budget. This makes it all the more impressive how much they have already accomplished.

In the early 70s, Rob Goldston was a graduate student in plasma physics, and experiments to produce fusion energy were just starting to bear fruit.

“We had a huge party because we had made 1/1000th of a joule of fusion energy,” he told me. “It was ridiculous, it was a tiny amount of energy." A 35-watt light bulb, for instance, uses 35 joules every second. Now, 40 years later, the game has changed. A recent experiment at the Joint European Torus fusion reactor in the United Kingdom produced 20 million joules. And the National Ignition Facility in California just reached a milestone by producing more energy in a fusion reaction than was needed to start that reaction.

While eating lunch at a recent energy conference with the usual random selection of delegates and speakers, I asked the co-founder of a leading energy venture capital firm what technology he finds most exciting right now. Without hesitation, he began telling me about his company’s ambitious, longer-term bet on a small nuclear fusion company. He then put me in contact with his partner and co-founder, who helped fill in the details for this story.

Aiming to create the first net gain reactor, General Fusion's design leverages steam-driven pneumatics in quest for the Holy Grail of energy production. In a world beset by fossil fuel energy woes, fusion energy is holiest of Holy Grails. A working fusion reactor would not only release large amounts of energy but, unlike nuclear fission plants, they can’t melt down. They’re also significantly “cleaner,” in that a fusion reaction only uses small amounts of an abundant fuel (hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium), which is only weakly radioactive. The problem is, no one has yet created a net gain reactor (more energy out than in), although many well-funded programs are actively pursuing it.

2. Harnessing the Sun's Power Ever since cold fusion flopped spectacularly, the idea of finding an affordable way of replicating the sun's method of generating energy has become almost a joke. That may be about to change. Yes, the two major fusion reactor designs being explored in the research world -- one is called a tokamak and the other is inertial confinement systems -- show promise, but they are 20 to 30 years off. Also, they require either gigantic superconducting magnet systems or extra-fierce laser arrays and will cost tens of billions at best.

In the race among world governments and wealthy companies to create and commercialize a nuclear fusion reactor, a small Canadian firm backed by innovative ideas and a little venture capital may just have a shot.  A report from Agence France-Presse.