Quick Links

Fuelled by venture capital and a lot of hope, alternative fusion technologies are heating up. Author M. Mitchell Waldrop looks into the basics of nuclear fusion and presents a number of alternative fusion technologies that are pushing towards the goal of commercializing fusion power.

Fusion research is now moving from the whiteboard and academic papers to working reactors. 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.

Vancouver is a land of scenic harbors, tall mountains and startups trying to harness the limits of physics.

In town for the TED conference, I had the occasion to visit two such companies yesterday:D-Wave and General Fusion. D-Wave, a quantum computing company, is all about the very cold and the rather tiny. It has built enormous refrigerators that each house a single chip, laced with “qubits” that can be in the superposition of both 1 and 0 at the same time and can carry an electric current with no resistance at low temperatures.

"Starting to believe in the eventuality of our success is important" General Fusion, Canada’s most ambitious alternative energy company, hired a new CEO this week. Nathan Gilliland was the founder of Boston-based biomass energy company Harvest Power and more recently served as an entrepreneur-in-residence with Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, one of the world’s largest venture capital firms.

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.