Tag Archives: General Fusion

General Fusion builds credibility on its ambitious path to demonstrate affordable fusion power for the masses

12-May-general-fusion-reactor-360Corporate website design on its own doesn’t reveal much about a company except how much it’s willing to spend on marketing. However, the timing of website designs and redesigns can tell you quite a bit. For example, if a new company goes live from Day 1 on the Internet with a flashy, slick, clearly expensive corporate site, it’s more than likely smoke and mirrors hiding a lot of nothing. However, when a company has been around for a few years and then suddenly decides to invest in a kick-ass website, it’s often — not always — a sign it has entered a new stage and finally has something concrete to brag about. Serious companies, in my experience, try to keep a low profile until they’ve got something real to say.

A superficial observation, yes, but I’m making this point to explain why I decided to contact nuclear fusion startup General Fusion of Vancouver for an update. As many of you will remember, I wrote a chapter about this Vancouver-based company in Mad Like Tesla — it’s one of my favourite chapters in the book. This week, the company, which counts Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos as a financial backer, announced that two top-notch directors were joining its board: Jacques Besnainou and Frederick Buckman. Besnainou was former president and CEO of AREVA Group North America, while Buckman, who has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT, has pretty deep experience working as an executive with a number of electricity-sector companies, including Shaw Power Group, Brookfield Asset Management, and PowerLink Transmission Co., where he is currently CEO. After seeing this announcement, I decided to check out General Fusion’s website when I noticed the redesign, which is more professionally put together, visually attractive, and through excellent photos has a compelling narrative and offers a peak inside a company doing some very cool work. For this reason, and because it has been more than three years since I last spoke with the company, I decided to give CEO Doug Richardson a call for an update. Below is an edited excerpt of that conversation, though first you may want to read a couple of previous posts for a bit of background on General Fusion.

Clean Break: In Mad Like Tesla, I mentioned that General Fusion’s goal was to demonstrate net gain by 2014 with an eye to generating fusion power for the grid by 2020. When we last spoke, you said the trick relates to how you confine the plasma so you can achieve the right densities and temperature required to achieve net gain. I recall your comparison to a water balloon, and the difficulty of trying to compress it with your hands without letting the balloon squeeze through your fingers. How has your progress been on that front?

Richardson: We’ve struggled with getting the confinement and we’re probably at half of what we need. So we’re working on that…. The questions are, do we have the right water balloon, and can we improve our fingers so we don’t let any of the water balloon come through? On both those fronts we’ve made great improvements. Have we gotten to net-gain fusion conditions yet? No. Do I still believe we can get there? Yes. Has it taken longer than expected? Yes. Fusion is hard.
Clean Break: Over the past three years, do you feel you’ve gained acceptance in the broader scientific community, specifically in the area of nuclear physics?

Richardson: In the scientific community, we’re much more credible. People realize who we are. There was a guy recently doing an article on fusion in the United States. He phoned up a guy who runs a fusion conference for comment. The guy told him there are three areas he needs to look at : the laser guys, magnetic confinement fusion like ITER, and you have to talk to General Fusion. That’s an endorsement that the science we’re doing is getting noticed in the scientific community.

Clean Break: Have you been getting more attention and support from the Canadian government?

Richardson: I would say Canadian government at high levels, no. I would say associations within Canada, yes. For example, the Canadian Nuclear Society now has a fusion section in their annual meeting, and there have been a few other fusion meetings in Canada. The Canadian government really killed fusion dead. For that to change is a big challenge. It’s not happening.

Clean Break: While traditional nuclear fission approaches to power generation seem to be struggling, we are hearing quite a bit about the potential of fuel recycling, thorium reactors, small modular reactors, and other approaches. Do see yourself in a race against these alternative approaches to nuclear power generation?

Richardson: If we get it right, it completely blows everybody else out of the water. Some of those technologies may be better than heavy-water and light-water reactors, but they have a huge development path ahead. The thing that holds them back is the commercial viability. The real nuclear advances will come from Asia, even in fission. My understanding is that the Chinese have taken a CANDU reactor and loaded it up with thorium. Likewise, other types of fission like reburning spent fuel are being explored. This is going to sound a bit harsh, but it’s a bit like North America has decided to get out of nuclear. To be clear, the Tokamak (ITER) approach for fusion from a scientific point of view is further proven than the magnetized target fusion we’re doing. Tokamaks have gotten near net gain. We haven’t gotten anywhere near net gain. We can prove out the science on a way faster timescale than they did, and with a way smaller budget, but they are well ahead on the science. So until we demonstrate the science is valid, there’s is the way to go. If we demonstrate the science, Vancouver will be the global centre for fusion. If we prove out the science that fusion can work at inexpensive scale, it will enable fusion around the world and in all sorts of surprising ways that weren’t anticipated.

Clean Break: If you demonstrate the validity of the science behind General Fusion’s approach, do you really think a project like ITER will be discontinued with the billions of dollars already put into it?

Richardson: I actually believe that people are looking for a reason to scrap ITER, but they haven’t found a way to do so. I think the Chinese will have a version beyond ITER, perhaps built before ITER is built.

Clean Break: Jeff Bezos, through Bezos Expeditions, has put some money behind General Fusion. Has Bezos toured your facility?

Richardson: (pause)… I had a very fun lunch with Bezos.

Clean Break: And what was your impression?

Richardson: He’s an exceptionally smart, curious, practical, interesting guy with a zest for life.

Canada’s Chalk River Lab could contribute to solving world’s nuclear waste problems

My latest Clean Break column draws attention to the future of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s history-rich Chalk River Laboratories, and suggests if we are to continue with nuclear research in Canada it focus on addressing existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, such as spent fuel recycling (via DUPIC) and putting our global expertise in tritium handling toward nuclear fusion research. (NOTE: Some readers have told me I should have focused on fast-neutron reactors. I agree fast reactors may be part of the solution going forward, but since Canada has no previous history or expertise in this area I didn’t pursue it. Also, for my readers who are shaking their head asking why I’m even contemplating a future for nuclear research, I ask you this: What do we do, then, with all that spent fuel?)

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Tyler Hamilton

Change is in the air at Canada’s single-largest scientific outpost, located two hours northwest of Ottawa. That’s the history-rich home of Chalk River Laboratories, the heart of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s nuclear research division.

You’ll recall that the Crown corporation’s commercial Candu reactor division was sold last year to Canadian engineering giant SNC Lavalin. That transaction represented the first phase of a larger AECL restructuring plan.

Under the second phase, which kicked off in February, the government is targeting the research division with an eye to getting more bang for the taxpayer buck, and bringing in a private-sector partner to make it happen.

Such public-private arrangements are well tested south of the border, where companies such as Lockheed Martin and Battelle operate major national labs in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The model seems to work well.

“The restructuring needs to determine the activities of interest to those stakeholders willing to invest in AECL, which would enable enhanced sharing of both benefits and risks while strengthening accountability,” according to a call for expressions of interest on Feb. 9.

Which areas of nuclear research should Chalk River focus on? What role, if any, does Canada want to play in the nuclear world? Those with ideas and suggestions have until April 2 to have their say.

One sensible view: focus on the waste.

The world has massive amounts of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel from its existing fleet of nuclear plants. Even if we closed down all nuclear power plants tomorrow and stopped making nuclear weapons, we would still have a major waste management problem on our collective hands. The waste is here and it’s not going away anytime soon.

We can try to bury it at considerable expense and hope all will work out well for the next hundred thousand or so years, or we can purse ways of reusing that waste as a new source of fuel. Those are really the only two options.

The latter, if done right and responsibly, can solve many problems: It can reduce the volume of radioactive material that must go into long-term storage. It can reduce our need to mine new uranium and the associated environmental impacts of doing so. And it can give us more emission-free energy to wean us off fossil fuels and reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Five years ago I wrote an article in this paper detailing a little-discussed feature of the Candu reactor design that allows it to use “waste” from rival light-water reactors (such as those used in the United States) as a fuel. It’s called the DUPIC process – standing for Direct Use of Spent Pressurized Water Reactor Fuel in Candus.

The Canadian government established a joint research program with the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute in 1991 to investigate the approach, and both sides have demonstrated that it’s feasible.

“It’s progressed to the prototype stage,” said Jeremy Whitlock, a scientist at the Chalk River Lab. “We’ve made the fuel and we’ve put it into a reactor and it works fine.”

There are other, more expensive approaches that involve dissolving spent fuel in strong acids, carefully separating fissile material from the waste, turning it back into a solid material, and then processing back into useable fuel. This chemical processing is nasty, resulting in liquid wastes that need to be treated.

DUPIC doesn’t involve chemical separation, making it much simpler. The spent light-water reactor fuel is instead mechanically reshaped into fuel rods that fit into Candu reactors. And because plutonium is not chemically isolated and separated the approach is more proliferation resistant.

Politics aside, imagine co-locating DUPIC-configured Candu reactors at existing light-water nuclear facilities around the world, with their job being to generate additional emission-free electricity from stockpiles of spent fuel in short-term storage.

There are challenges. Handling and mechanically reprocessing spent fuel is tricky. This is hot stuff that’s highly radioactive. Special equipment, procedures and reactor modifications would be required to safely handle the material.

But it can be done, and arguably faster and more easily than trying to build fleets of waste-consuming fast breeder reactors, another technology worthy of pursuit but with longer time horizons. The Koreans, unfortunately, began losing interest in DUPIC a few year ago and have since turned their attention to the more ambitious fast breeder model.

Perhaps Chalk River should double-down on efforts? Perhaps SNC Lavalin, which now has exclusive commercial rights to DUPIC, could turn this into a new business opportunity?

Another opportunity is fusion. General Fusion, the fusion technology start-up in Burnaby, B.C., is urging the federal government to devote part of Chalk River’s mandate to fusion research.

“There is expertise at Chalk River, world leading in some cases, in areas such as tritium handling,” explained Michael Delage, vice-president of business development at General Fusion.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen, and is a byproduct of Candu reactor operation. It’s also one of two isotopes that can be most easily combined to create a nuclear fusion reaction. General Fusion needs tritium, and could seriously benefit from Chalk River’s tritium handling expertise.

Whitlock pointed out that Canada once had a fusion program at Chalk River. In fact, in 2001 Canada put in a bid to host the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. But we never backed up ambition with money. The federal government cut funding to our fusion program in 1997, and a general lack of financial support led to our withdrawal in 2003 from the ITER consortium.

With Chalk River once again under the spotlight, it’s time to make some choices.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos invests in Canadian nuclear fusion startup

Nuclear fusion startup General Fusion of Burnaby, B.C., has just closed a Series B Funding round worth $19.5 million, bringing its total haul to more than $33 million (likely higher, depending on where grants from Sustainable Development Technology Canada fit in). What’s interesting about this round is that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, through his personal investment firm Bezos Expeditions, has decided to contribute. Bezos’ share of the round was not disclosed, but it’s a sign that the company’s Magnetized Target Fusion technology and its progress on building a prototype is beginning to attract some attention (as opposed to skepticism).

Another new investor in the round is Canadian oil company Cenovus Energy, through its Environmental Opportunity Fund. Bezos and Cenovus join returning investors Chrysalix Energy, GrowthWorks, Braemar Energy Ventures, Entrepreneurs Fund, Business Development Bank of Canada, and SET Venture Partners.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, but the support of Cenovus Energy and Jeff Bezos, and the continued participation of every one of our venture capital investors, reflects the strength of our team, our plan, and the progress we have made.”

I have a chapter in my upcoming book, Mad Like Tesla, about General Fusion, its technology and its struggle to be taken seriously. It’s a great company taking the kinds of risks we need to see in this world. Check out this article I wrote on General Fusion two years ago for the Toronto Star, and here for MIT Technology Review.

Good reads: fusion, fluids, ‘fficiency and much more

Been crazy busy this past week but there’s been no shortage of interesting news in the cleantech and green energy space, so I’ll summarize a few of them here instead of doing individual posts. BTW: Hope everyone is enjoying their summer.

Click to the next page to read about General Fusion’s new infusion of cash, new fluids that can make enhanced geothermal more efficient, a McKinsey report that details the incredible payback of investments in energy efficency, and a University of Calgary report that says Alberta would benefit tremendously by plugging into electric transportation.

Continue reading Good reads: fusion, fluids, ‘fficiency and much more

Fusion power on the cheap? Not so outlandish…

My feature in the Toronto Star today is about General Fusion, a Vancouver-area startup that believes it can build a prototype of a nuclear fusion reactor for $50 million within four years. While the multibillion-dollar ITER and U.S. fusion programs are using costly lasers and electromagnets to achieve “net gain” — that is, creating a fusion reaction that releases more energy than put it — the folks at General Fusion are cleverly pursuing a mechanical approach that uses concentrated sound waves to compress a deuterium-tritium plasma and trigger a fusion reaction. The key, as you’ll see, is the use of precision digital controls that simply didn’t exist back in the 1970s when the idea of magnetized target fusion was first explored.

You can read the article for more details and a deeper explanation of how it works. General Fusion recently secured $13.9 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada so it can pursue its prototype development, contingent on the company raising another $30 million or so from private investors. SDTC‘s average deal size is around $3 million so the fact it’s giving General Fusion nearly five times that amount speaks to the credibility of what it’s doing. Continue reading Fusion power on the cheap? Not so outlandish…