Doug Richardson (left) and Michel Laberge think their low-budget effort can achieve a world-changing breakthrough – a solution that could power the globe.
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.
- Slideshow: Nuclear Fusion for Dummies
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.
"If you can’t buy it at a Costco, Home Depot or
Canadian Tire, it doesn’t go into the machine.”
General Fusion Inc.
At the end of a light-industrial cul-de-sac near Gaglardi Way and Lougheed Highway in Burnaby, you’ll find General Fusion. Or maybe you won’t. There’s no nameplate, just an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper printed with the company’s name taped to the door. Partly that’s because General Fusion prides itself on its frugality, and partly it’s because it doesn’t want to draw too much attention to itself. Not the wrong kind of attention, anyway. It’s in the nuclear business, remember.
Inside two buildings here (the second one still has a “for lease” sign on the door providing further camouflage) lies what appears at first to be a super-sized garage for backyard tinkerers. There’s a giant steel piston here, where engineers count down, “Five, four, three, two, one,” before it goes “Foom!” Over there, there’s a plasma injector, about the size and conical shape of a lunar capsule, surrounded by portable steel walls armour-plated with blast-proof tiles. In another area, they’re testing the compression of plasma using high explosives. Every now and then a siren sounds, like the intruder alert in Dr. Evil’s underground lair.
“We have an unwritten law: if you can’t buy it at a Costco, Home Depot or Canadian Tire, it doesn’t go into the machine,” Richardson, 49, says as he points out the systems for handling the liquid lead. “There are exceptions to that, like we have to go to Russia to source the switches for the plasma injectors, but overall we want to keep it to simple materials, simple procurement.”
The brains behind this seemingly haphazard assemblage of high-science tinker toys is Michel Laberge, General Fusion’s 49-year-old founder, president and chief technology officer. To say Laberge is an unconventional thinker is an understatement. He earned his doctorate in plasma physics at UBC, a backwater in the fusion world. Lacking job options in his chosen field locally, in 1992 he went to work for Creo Inc., a then small but fast-growing company specializing in digital imaging technology for the printing industry. There he was paired with Richardson, an engineer and project manager, on a series of products that together generated more than $1 billion in sales. They clicked, and developed a mutual respect. Laberge would become Creo’s senior physicist and principal engineer; Richardson, the team’s leader, rose to director of business development.
“Of all the people I’ve met in industry – and in fact in academia as well – he is the best guy to break science down to its base elements, look at the problem and apply innovative solutions, and then make a prototype to prove it,” Richardson attests. “As a proof-of-principle guy, I’ve never seen anybody like him.”
Richardson was taken aback one day in 2001, therefore, when Laberge walked into his office and quit. His 40th birthday was approaching, he told Richardson. He didn’t want to design another thermal head. He wanted to solve the world’s energy problems.
“I sat on the sofa at home for six months – to the great despair of my wife – and studied all the ways to do fusion,” Laberge recalls from the barricaded control room for the plasma injector a few days after my tour of the plant with Richardson. He came across a technology called magnetized target fusion that had been abandoned in the 1970s. Attempts to concoct the reaction then were foiled by the rapid dissipation of the plasma. But more had been learned since about handling plasma, and electronic systems for controlling the experiment had advanced. Coming to the conclusion he could make net gain happen this time by changing the ratio of pressure and duration, he incorporated General Fusion in 2002.
“I decided that if this is successful, we’re going to produce the power for the whole planet. This is going to be a big company,” says Laberge, characteristically alternating between hubris and self-deprecation. “You know, General Motors, General Electric, General Foods – those big companies that produce things for everybody.” He went cap in hand to friends, family and the federal government to raise $800,000 with which to build a prototype.
Richardson was one of those early investors, and when Laberge declared the prototype a success four years later – “Some neutrons were coming out of the machine. I called them my marketing neutrons,” he says – Richardson agreed to join the company. Like Laberge and all the early employees of Creo, Richardson held shares in the company and enjoyed a big payday following its 2005 acquisition by Eastman Kodak Co. for just under $1 billion. He could afford to take a risk on something, or rather someone, he believed in.
The next big hire at General Fusion was Stephen Howard, a plasma physicist then doing post-doctoral work at the University of California at Davis. Howard would design the fusion reactor General Fusion is now building, and having him on board gave the company the credibility to raise serious money from VCs and the federal government’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) fund. Today the head count is up to 45, including 11 PhDs.
One of the first VC investors was Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, whose head, Michael Brown, became General Fusion’s chairman. Brown is something of a godfather in B.C.’s technology community, having co-founded the seminal VC firm Ventures West Capital Ltd. in 1968 and helped underwrite companies such as Ballard Power Systems Inc. and MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. By July of 2009, General Fusion had $9 million in private money and $14 million committed (contingent on meeting milestones) from federal grants, and the clock started ticking on its four-year program to demonstrate net gain.
Low-tech innovation: General Fusion's rudi-
mentary strategy is striking the reactor with
200 steam-powered hammers to create the
heat and pressure needed.
Is it scalable? is a question every venture capitalist will ask a startup. There’s no point in investing in a better mousetrap, even one that’s cheaply made, if it only works in one house. You need it to work in houses around the world, each unit sale dropping a few more pennies of profit into the lottery jackpot that motivates investors to buy a ticket. In the rare cases where they win, they must win big. They therefore dream big. They need upside.
And there’s probably no bigger dream than solving the world’s energy problems. While comprising around seven per cent of global GDP, energy is a sector that lends itself to scale. Of the top 10 companies on the Fortune Global 500, five are energy producers. All of those are primarily invested in fossil fuels, extracting, refining and burning the remains of plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and in so doing returning the atmosphere to that CO2-heavy condition of primordial times. Hence the challenge.
The holy grail of alternative energy
If a company were to come along that could replace the energy generated by these hydrocarbons, then, with a process that generated no greenhouse gases and no radioactive waste, and its “fuel” was hydrogen isotopes abundant in seawater, there would be no small upside. It would be ultimately scalable.
It would also be somewhat surprising. Fusion has, for various reasons, been the holy grail of alternative energy ever since the reverse process, nuclear fission, was demonstrated with the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. Harnessed for weaponry, splitting the atom was soon after applied to peaceful energy production. But it has drawbacks, including its high cost in comparison to fossil-fuel plants, the safety issues that the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents brought into focus and the issue of nuclear waste. Though even many environmentalists now consider fission part of the solution to climate change, it’s far from sustainable.
Enigmatic as it remains after 60 years of research, fusion continues to top many prominent thinkers’ lists of alternative energy sources. “There’s going to be an end to fossil fuels,” says Peter Morand, a former president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and dean of science and engineering at the University of Ottawa who has been urging the federal government to return Canada to the forefront of nuclear research. Much as we might like renewables in principle, they can’t supply more than a fraction of the energy humanity uses today, Morand argues. Fusion, if it’s feasible, would be the most powerful and environmentally benign alternative.
Ever since a 1968 breakthrough by Russian scientists using a doughnut-shaped chamber called a tokamak, public sector fusion research has focused heavily on the so-called tokamak technology, culminating in a $21.5-billion multinational project called the International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (ITER) based in the south of France and scheduled for completion in 2019. The U.S. military, meanwhile, has long backed a competing technology that uses the world’s largest laser to heat and compress the plasma. Where tokamaks attempt to trigger fusion at truly massive densities for relatively long periods (if you consider milliseconds long), the laser fusion being pursued at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco will happen faster (in the microseconds) at less crushing densities. In addition, a British-based project called HiPER (High Power Laser Energy Research) is attempting a similar reaction using an array of smaller lasers. Both laser-based undertakings have budgets in the billions of dollars.
But according to Morand, it’s the lower-cost alternatives to tokamaks that are most likely to succeed. “To me ITER is the least promising. They’re going to get a few minutes of net energy out of that, and it’s a huge expenditure,” Morand says. “The challenges of going to a functional model are immense.”
Even the small-scale fusion research going on requires big bucks, though. Beyond the public sector initiatives, there are a handful of private startups in the U.S. attempting different forms of fusion, the best funded (to the tune of around US$100 million) being Tri Alpha Energy out of Irvine, California, which has Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for an angel. You have to be cheeky, then, to think you can beat these long-running, multinational fusion efforts in a Burnaby garage with $60 million and a lot of duct tape.
The outside scientists and engineers who have reviewed General Fusion’s project and reactor design mostly offer the faint hope of double negatives – that it won’t necessarily not work. “Dr. Laberge . . . has made valid estimates, and the general concept is interesting, possibly even viable,” wrote Ronald Kirkpatrick, a retired fusion scientist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in one assessment.
And even if the science holds up, the business challenges involved with commercializing such a technology are formidable; just look at the history of fuel-cell maker Ballard Power, which Brown helped launch, since it became a public company. If anything, fusion is a more pie-in-the-sky technology still trying to shake the stigma of the “cold fusion” hoax of the late 1980s. “Investing in this sort of truly game-changing technology is out of the comfort zone of the conventional Silicon Valley venture capital companies,” says Dallas Kachan, managing partner of San Francisco-based clean-tech research consultancy Kachan & Co. “They typically have investors breathing down their necks.” Kachan says General Fusion at least has the right game plan: to prove the concept first, then look for a big partner with deep pockets and experience in power generation if and when the time comes to build an operating plant.
The question that keeps Laberge up at night concerns whether the reaction will behave the same way in the larger machine as it did in the prototype. “We’re extrapolating results that have been achieved at fairly low density to the very high density we want to operate at. That’s a bit of a leap of faith,” he admits. “There’s the possibility that we will encounter some [plasma] instability or some problem that will make it not work.” Another risk involves interaction between the plasma and the walls of the reactor itself. “We’re running at such a high density that the wall will vaporize, and you don’t want your vaporized wall to mix too much with the plasma you’re trying to capture. Otherwise it will cool it.” (The reason scientists haven’t been able to achieve net gain to date is because they can’t sustain the reaction. The plasma cools too quickly. It’s like trying to start a campfire in the rain.)
But as time goes on without proof positive that the experiment won’t work, confidence grows. New money has come in from new investors, each requiring new scientific and mechanical reviews. Amsterdam-based SET Venture Partners, which committed $2.7 million in May 2010, asked General Fusion to make a presentation to plasma scientists from the FOM Institute, a participant in ITER. Richardson and Laberge were prepared to be shot down, but by the end of the pitch the Dutch scientists had to admit it just might work.
With another $5 million secured in September 2010, General Fusion has now raised $17 million in venture capital and up to $14 million in tranched SDTC grants. All to demonstrate, in a one-off experiment, that you can configure a fusion reaction such that it gives off more energy than it takes to stage. Designing a power plant that can repeat that feat thousands of times a day and deliver a constant stream of power to the electrical grid without downtime is a whole other challenge that Richardson estimates will take north of $1 billion in research funds to figure out. General Fusion will worry about crossing that bridge when, or rather if, it comes to it.
His experience at Creo, though, has all along emboldened Laberge to believe it can be done. Toward the end of his tenure at the laser printing company, management saw the boom going on in communications networks and asked Laberge to develop something outside its core business: an optical cross-connect switch. Then-huge companies such as Nortel Networks Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. were pouring billions into it.
“We were three guys, a small project spending maybe a million dollars,” he says of his Creo development team. Yet at trade shows, their prototype managed to outperform those of the telecom giants. “And then all telecommunications plummeted and this thing came to naught,” Laberge says, laughing. But it proved to him that a small team taking a different approach can sometimes beat the big guys and their conventional wisdom: “That’s what I did with the optical switch, and it worked. That’s what I’m trying to do with fusion. The verdict is still out.”