Nuclear fusion, the mother of all alternative energies, is a quandary that will take dozens of countries, hundreds of scientists, and billions of dollars to unlock. Unless Burnaby's General Fusion does it first.
“Hang on, I’ll get my vortex guy,” says Doug Richardson, CEO of General Fusion Inc., ducking into a side office. He emerges onto the shop floor, followed by a young man with thick, black hair and a limp.
“Did you hurt yourself coming down the mountain this morning?” asks Richardson, a lean, plain-spoken former bike racer.
“I hurt myself at judo practice,” the vortex guy says as he flips some switches, then checks the water level in tanks on the floor below a suspended transparent sphere. The noise of pumps rises and water fills the sphere. It swirls around like a whirlpool, faster and faster, until after a minute or two there is a vertical column in the middle.
Of course, this is only a model. The real sphere, this one opaque steel, a full metre across, sits off to the side, swathed in insulation and aluminum foil. It will be filled not with water but with molten lead, spinning round and round. And the vortex, where the reaction is supposed to take place, will be a vacuum. Into the vortex will be injected plasma, a gas made up of simple atoms stripped of the usual electrons, the stuff of which stars are made. Its basic components are deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen found at the very top of the periodic table.
Super-fast pistons arrayed around the sphere will strike, creating an acoustic wave that collapses the vortex, crushing the plasma to a high density which, if all goes as planned, will cause the deuterium and tritium atoms to fuse at a temperature of 110 million degrees Celsius for a period of between 10 and 20 microseconds (one millionth of a second). The fused atoms – now helium, the next element down on the periodic table – will give off neutrons, which will go flying into the lead, bouncing off bulky lead particles like pinballs, thus heating up the metal even more. The lead will then get pumped into a heat exchanger where it will boil water into steam, driving a turbine similar to what you’d see in any coal- or gas-fired electric plant. Some of that power, ideally a small fraction, will come back to the reactor to help squeeze more atoms together.
In theory. The objective here is to harness nuclear fusion, the mother of all (or almost all) energy sources. Most of the energy we use on Earth – oil, gas, coal, biofuels, hydroelectricity, wind, solar – can be traced back to that giant fusion reactor we call the sun. Imagine the power, then, if we could cut out the middlemen and get it directly from the source. The challenge is re-creating on Earth the conditions found in the sun, especially the massive heat and pressure.
Scientists have done that, but it’s not enough. General Fusion is in year two of a four-year quest to do something never done before: to demonstrate “net gain” from nuclear fusion, an elusive reaction that gives off more energy than it consumes. And while the effort looks frankly amateur, there are top scientific minds, proven technology-development talent and, by the standards of early-stage technology companies, serious money behind it. Already General Fusion has raised more than half the $60 million or so it thinks it needs to achieve its goal. Perhaps never before in Canada has this much private money gone into weird, crazy, unproven science. But there’s a reason for that.