Possibly later this year, General Fusion [website] will begin work on a full-size prototype reactor. At the center will be a sphere, three meters in diameter, inside which molten lead swirls at high speed creating a vacuum, or vortex, in the middle. Arrayed around it will be 200 to 300 pistons, each the size of a cannon. Firing in perfect harmony, they will create an acoustic wave that collapses the vortex at the very moment a plasma injector shoots hydrogen isotopes, the nuclear fuel, into it. If General Fusion has its physics right, the heat and pressure will ignite a fusion reaction that spins off countless neutrons which will heat the lead even more. Pumped through a heat exchanger, that hot lead will help generate steam just like a conventional thermal power plant.
Getting the reactor to work once is the easy part. Getting it to work repeatedly and cost effectively for power production, that’s harder.
The magnetized target fusion that General Fusion is attempting is what’s known as an “alternate concept”.
The cultural chasm between General Fusion and competing government labs could not be more stark. Some of the potential hires Richardson interviewed had worked in fusion for 15 years without ever once turning a screw. Others he’s come across will say, “I could never work here. I don’t have anybody expecting results. I just have to publish some papers.”
Even less like a public research lab, Laberge and Richardson set themselves a deadline, as they had done developing products for Creo: four years to net gain. They would get more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put in by the summer of 2013. Unfortunately, plasma would prove more stubborn than designing a new thermal printing head. In 2011 General Fusion had what at first looked like a successful test of its plasma injector, a funnel-shaped machine where plasma is created from super-heated hydrogen gas. “The plasma looked beautiful,” Richardson recalls. It was the temperature sensors that the scientists were beginning to suspect. Sure enough, the plasma was cooling down too quickly as it travelled the length of the injector. They knew that they would need to get a better handle on plasma before building a full-size prototype.
In 2011 a new round of financing brought the total raised up to $50 million. In addition to earlier investors, who anted up again, some notable new money joined the group. One was Bezos Expeditions, the venture capital arm of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The other was Cenovus Energy, a major player in Canada’s oilsands. “Cenovus is impressed by General Fusion’s innovative, pragmatic approach,” executive vice-president Judy Fairburn explained in a release announcing the $3.8-million investment from the oil company’s Environmental Opportunity Fund. It was Cenovus’s investment, more than that of Bezos, that turned heads among investors.
Another guiding principle that General Fusion has kept despite its growing credibility and business focus is frugality. Only the cheapest, most readily available materials go into the machine. Technicians working there have been known to obtain supplies from the Costco store around the block. “You can study plasma-facing surfaces for 10 years or you can go to your local coating supplier and say, ‘Make me five of these and do this, this, this and this,” says Richardson. “Before long you’re an expert in how these things perform.”
For example, General Fusion turned to a local dry-ice company to help clean microscopic carbon soot from its plasma injector. An array of spectrometers used to measure what’s happening with the plasma came from Photon Control, a nearby company managers had spotted while driving past.
A bigger venue will be needed when the time comes to build the full-size prototype, featuring a three-metre-diameter sphere, between 200 and 300 pistons and plasma injector all connected together. It’s expected to take at least three years to build. Ideally, that process will begin before this year is out. The mechanical aspect—getting pistons to fire synchronously within 10 microseconds of each other—is pretty much ready. So is the computer modelling, an essential leg up in the effort to make the reaction work in the real world. What continues to bedevil General Fusion’s efforts is the damned plasma. The team has to get the combination of energy and confinement to a level that sustains, even for a fraction of a second, the conditions in which fusion energy is released.
SOURCES – Canadian Business, General Fusion
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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