Abundant, affordable energy is (almost) within our grasp

Vancouver Sun BY RANDY SHORE OCTOBER 18, 2015

General Fusion takes a low-tech approach to a safe, clean form of nuclear energy
Watch the video report on the Vancouver Sun web site.

Burnaby’s General Fusion appears to inching close to a technology that could supply the world with abundant, clean energy from nuclear fusion.

This is not the first time that scientists have announced that a breakthrough in fusion is “right around the corner,” conceded VP Michael Delage. The world has more or less lost count.

GF is developing full-scale subsystems to test a new approach to generate the heat and pressure required to sustain a fusion reaction that produces more power than it consumes.

We know that fusion releases huge amounts of energy — it’s been working very nicely to power the Sun for quite some time. The trick is to create and control the conditions present in the Sun here on Earth in a confined space.

Such a success has the potential to profoundly change the energy sector, because fusion produces no long-lasting radioactive waste, releases no greenhouse gases and requires only minute amounts of deuterium and lithium fuel. Deuterium is easily extracted from sea water at a cost of 1/1000th of one cent per kilowatt hour, while lithium is relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust.

“If the whole planet would run on fusion, we could extract that fuel from ocean and it would (be enough) for billions and billions of years,” chief scientific officer Michel Laberge, a plasma physicist, told a Vancouver TEDx audience.

GF’s backers are betting — $100 million to date, including $27 million in the past few months — that a hybrid technology being developed here in B.C. can fulfil decades of promise.

General Fusion is but one group in a global community of scientists working to solve the puzzle of affordable clean energy using fusion technology and there is no guarantee they will succeed.

But their colleagues in the local tech sector seem optimistic. The company recently picked up a gold medal for being B.C’s most innovative company from The Digital Media and Wireless Association of B.C.

What are we talking about?

Fusion reactions are the source of the Sun’s energy, caused essentially by the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium, which releases energy.

Early attempts to heat plasma to the 150 million degrees C required for fusion reactions required about 10,000 times more power than the reaction generated.

“No matter how you approach fusion, you are going to have to put a tremendous amount of energy in to get the fusion reactions going before it pays the energy back,” said Delage. “Until we have a technology that produces more energy than it consumes you aren’t going to have something that is commercially useful.”

More recent working models only require about twice as much power as they produce and the ITER reactor being built in France promises to produce 10 times as much power as it consumes.

Two competing technologies to create viable fusion reactors are being pursued at great cost.

The heart of the ITER reactor is a 10,000-tonne array of magnets in a doughnut-shaped reactor of the type that scientists have been tinkering with for more than 40 years to create a confined space for their plasma. Price tag: US$14 billion.