Fusion energy is often dismissed as a technology that is always “20 years away.” Indeed, some of the major fusion energy laboratories around the world are making substantial progress, but the industry will still require many more years of R&D before reactors begin putting electrons onto the grid.
However, one small company, backed by venture capital, hopes to make fusion energy a reality in much shorter time frame. General Fusion, a company based in Canada, is seeking to achieve “net energy gain” – more energy out than is put in – by the end of next year.
This is an ambitious goal. In comparison, an internationally-supported fusion reactor is under construction in the south of France, with major fusion labs around the world contributing their expertise, and they hope to achieve net energy gain sometime in the 2020’s.
General Fusion also calculates that it can do it at a fraction of the cost. It is backed by $32.5 million in venture capital, notably from Chrysalix, a cleantech venture capital firm. It also received about $14 million in grant money from the Canadian government. When compared to the billions in funding for large fusion labs, it is easy to understand the excitement surrounding General Fusion.
So how do they plan on proving fusion is possible cheaper and faster than the big labs?
General Fusion is combining the two main approaches to fusion energy (magnetic confinement fusion and inertial confinement fusion) into a technique called “Magnetized Target Fusion.” According to their website:
“Magnetized target fusion first traps a relatively low-temperature and low-density plasma of deuterium and tritium in a magnetic field (similar to magnetic fusion) and then compresses the plasma to high-temperature and high-density fusion conditions (much like inertial confinement fusion). This hybrid approach compresses the target more slowly than inertial confinement fusion, allowing the energy for compression to be delivered by much less expensive technology than lasers. Magnetized target fusion also creates higher density conditions than magnetic fusion, reducing the required containment time. Together, this combination of a slower compression rate and shorter containment time results in a simpler, cheaper and less power-intensive fusion generator design.”
General Fusion believes it will prove net energy gain by the end of 2013. After that, the next step will be to build a full-scale demonstration plant, estimated to be complete by 2016 at a cost of about $1 billion. If successful, General Fusion believes it can have commercial reactors on the grid by the end of the decade.
In their vision, General Fusion’s reactors will be small, about 100-megawatts each. They estimate the electricity produced from their fusion reactors could cost between $0.05 – $0.10 per kilowatt-hour to produce, a rate at which would be cost-competitive with electricity produced on the grid today.
While success is uncertain, the implications – in terms of energy security, climate change, geopolitics and economics – would be enormous. Achieving commercial energy from fusion would mean clean, safe, abundant energy that would be virtually inexhaustible.
Although the rewards may be significant, General Fusion needs to first prove it is possible.