Here be Fusion

During my autumn travel to the Canadian West Coast I was given the opportunity to visit yet another High Tech Start-up with a vision no less radical and bold than D-Wave’s.

I have written about General Fusion before, and it was a treat to tour their expanding facility, and to ask any question I could think of. The company made some news when they attracted  investment from Jeff Bezos, but despite this new influx of capital, in the world of fusion research, they are operating on a shoe-string budget. This makes it all the more impressive how much they have already accomplished.

At the outset, the idea seems to be ludicrous; How could a small start-up company possibly hope to accomplish something that the multi-national ITER consortium attempts with billions of dollars? Yet, the approach they are following is scientifically sound, albeit fallen out of favor with the mainstream of plasma physicists. It’s an approach that is incidentally well suited to smaller scale experiments, and the shell of the experiment that started it all is now on display at the reception area of General Fusion.

Doug Richardson, General Fusion co-founder, is a man on a mission, who brings an intense focus to the job. Yet, when prompted by the receptionist he manged a smile for this photo that shows him next to the shell from the original experiment that started it all. The other founder and key driving force, Michel Laberge, was unfortunately out of town during the week of my visit.

Popular Science was the first major media outlet to take note of the company.  It is very instructive to read the article they wrote on the company back then to get a sense of how much bigger this undertaking has become.  Of course, getting neutrons from fusion is one thing; Getting excess energy is an entirely different matter. After all, the company that this start-up modeled its name after was enthusiastically demonstrating fusion to the public many decades ago.

But the lackluster progress of the conventional approach to fusion does not deter the people behind this project, but rather seems to add to the sense of urgency. What struck me when first coming on site was the no-nonsense industrial feel to the entire operation.  The company is renting some nondescript buildings, the interior more manufacturing floor than gleaming laboratory, every square inch purposefully utilized to run several R&D streams in parallel.  Even before talking to co-founder Doug Richardson, the premise itself sent a clear message, this is an engineering approach to fusion and they are in a hurry. This is why rather then just focusing on one aspect of the machine, they decided to work in parallel.

When asked where I wanted to start my tour, I opted for the optically most impressive piece, the scaled down reactor core with its huge attached pistons.  The reason I wanted to scrutinize this first is because, in my experience, this mechanical behemoth is what casual outside observers usually take objection to.  This is due to the naive assumption that so many moving parts under such high mechanical stresses make for problematic technology. This argument was met with Doug’s derision. In his mind this is the easy part, just a matter of selecting the right material and precision mechanical engineering.  My point that a common argument is that moving parts mean wear and tear, he swatted easily aside.  In my experience, a layperson introduced to the concept is usually uncomfortable with the idea that pistons could be used to produce this enormous pressure. After all, everybody is well acquainted with the limited lifetime of a car engine that has to endure far less.  Doug easily turned this analogy on its ear, pointing out that a stationary mounted engine can run uninterrupted for a long time, and that the reliability typically increases with scale.

Currently they have a 3:1 scaled down reactor chamber build to test the vortex compression system (shown in the picture below).

vortex test reactor
The test version has a reactor sphere diameter of 1m. The envisioned final product will be three times the size.  Still a fairly compact envelope, but too large to be hosted in this building.

Another of my concerns with this piece of machinery was the level of accuracy required to align the piston cylinders. The final product will require 200 of them, and if the system is sensitive to misalignment it is easy to imagine how this could impact its reliability.

It came as a bit of a surprise that the precision required was actually less than I expected, 50 micron (half a tenth of a millimeter) should suffice, and in terms of timing, the synchronicity can tolerate deviations of up to 10 microseconds, ten times more than initially expected. This is due to a nice property that the GF research uncovered during the experiments: The spherical shock wave they are creating within the reactor chamber is self-stabilizing, i.e. the phase shift when one of the actuators is slightly out of line causes a self-correcting interference that helps to keep the ingoing compression symmetric as it travels through the vortex of molten lead-lithium that is at the heart of the machine.

The reason for this particular metal mix within the reactor is the shielding properties of lead, and the fact that Lithium 6 has a large neutron absorption cross section that allows for breeding tritium fuel. This is a very elegant design that ensures that if the machine gets to the point of igniting fusion there will be no neutron activation problems like those which plague conventional approaches (i.e. with a Tokamak design as used by ITER, neutrons, that cannot be magnetically contained, bombard the reactor wall, eventually wearing it down and turning it radioactive).

Doug stressed that this reflects their engineering mindset. They need to get these problems under control from the get-go, whereas huge projects like ITER can afford to kick the can down the road. I.e. first measuring the scope of the problem, and then hoping to address this with later research effort (which is then supposed to provide a solution to a problem that General Fusion’s approach manages to eliminate altogether).

Another aspect of the design that I originally did not understand is the fact that plasma will be injected from both sides of the sphere simultaneously, so that the overall momentum of the plasma will cancel out at the center.  I.e. the incoming shock wave doesn’t have to hit a moving target.

The following YouTube video animation uploaded by the company illustrates how all these pieces are envisioned to work together.


Managing the plasma properties and its dynamics, i.e. avoiding unwanted turbulence that may reduce temperature and/or density, is the biggest technological challenge.

To create plasma of the required quality, and in order to get it into place, the company constructed some more impressive machinery.  It is a safe bet that they have the largest plasma injectors ever built.

Plasma Injector
Admittedly, comparing this behemoth to the small plasma chamber in the upper left corner is comparing apples to oranges, but then this machine is in a class of its own.

When studying the plasma parameters, it turned out that the theoretical calculations actually lead to an over-engineering of this injector and that smaller ones may be adequate in creating plasma of the desired density. But of course creating and injecting the plasma is only the starting point.  The most critical aspect is how this plasma behaves under compression.

To fully determine this, GF faces the same research challenges as the related magnetized target fusion research program in the US. I.e. General Fusion needs to perform similar test as conducted in the SHIVA STAR Air Force facility in Albuquerque. In fact, due to budget cut-backs, SHIVA has spare capacity that could be used by GF, but exaggerated US security regulations unfortunately prevent such cooperation.  It is highly doubtful that civilian Canadians would be allowed access to the military class facility.  So the company has to improvise and come up with its own approach to these kind of implosion tests. The photo below shows an array of sensors that is used to scrutinize the plasma during one of these tests.

Understanding the characteristics of the plasma when imploded is critical,  these sensors on top of one of experimental set-up are there to collect the crucial data. Many such experiments will be required before enough data has been amassed.

Proving that they can achieve the next target compression benchmark is critical in order to continue to receive funding from the federal Canadian SDTC fund.  The latter is the only source for governmental fusion funding, Canada has no dedicated program for fusion research and even turned its back on the ITER consortium. This is a far cry from Canada’s technological vision in the sixties that resulted in nuclear  leadership with the unique CANDU design. Yet, there is no doubt,  General Fusion has been doing the most with the limited funds it received.

Here’s to hoping that the Canadian government may eventually wake-up to the full potential of a fusion reactor design ‘made in Canada’ and start looking beyond the oil patch for its energy security (although this will probably require that the torch is passed to a more visionary leadership in Ottawa).

An obligatory photo for any visitor to General Fusion. Unfortunately, I forgot my cowboy hat.


Update: What a start into 2014 for this blog.  This post has been featured on slashdot, and received over 11K views within three days.  Some of the comments on slashdot inquired to dig deeper into the science of General Fusion. For those who want to follow through on this, the company’s papers and those that describe important results that GF builds on, can be found on their site. In addition, specifically for the unique vortex technology I find James Gregson’s Master Thesis very informative.

Update 2: General Fusion can be followed on Twitter @MTF_Fusion (h/t Nathan Gilliland)

Update 3: Some Canadian main stream media like the Edmonton Journal also noticed the conspicuous absence of dedicated fusion research.  Ironically, the otherwise well written article, argues for an Alberta based research program while not mentioning General Fusion once.  This despite the fact that the company is right next door (by Canadian standards) and has in fact one major Alberta based investor, the oil company  Cenovus Energy.

24 thoughts on “Here be Fusion

  1. Funding a science program for a decade could have happened any time in the past 30 years. Typical conservatives would reject such funding. Other conservatives have rejoiced at the “across-the board” cutting of government spending, always reducing scientific research. It is the Tea Party that argues the government is good for nothing, and they prove it all the time!

    We should be investing in fusion research now. There is a race for hydrogen fusion energy and opportunities with this volatile technology. Forget about ITER, which took 20 years to pour the foundation and will cost about $20 billion over decades. The American Security Project’s $30 Million / 10 year Proposal is $3 Billion spending a year. Funding could be achieved by eliminating tax breaks for the carbon fuel industry, or part of a broader Carbon Tax. Of course, this will sound like heresy for conservatives who would reject such funding. Their party has rejoiced at the “across-the board” cutting of government spending, which always reduces scientific research. It is the Tea Party who argues the government is good for nothing, and they prove it all the time!
    Achieving hydrogen fusion energy is game-changing technology. The country, region and people who achieve it first will find good paying jobs in advanced technology. They will overthrow the carbon fuel colossus that powers our civilization and poisons the planet.

    Frank Paine

  2. > Typical conservatives would reject such funding.

    Typical conservatives have noticed that many hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on projects that we were promised would make a huge difference, yet came to nothing.

    I’m perfectly willing to agree that this is likely to be different, but “typical liberals” have pissed away money that we could have spent on it.

    I’ll make you a deal. For every $50B of govt spending you cut, you can have $1B for this. Note – “cut” means actual decreases in spending, not changes in the growth.

    > Their party has rejoiced at the “across-the board” cutting of government spending, which always reduces scientific research.

    There was no “across-the-board” cutting (outside of defense). There was an across the board decrease in the rate of growth.

    “typical liberals” could have protected and even expanded said scientific research by cutting spending elsewhere. Scientific research is so important that they didn’t….

    We spend way too much. We’ve tried so called “smart cuts” for decades, but nothing was actually cut. You want money – find it in the federal budget.

    1. “…’typical liberals’ have pissed away…” You mean “the Pentagon”, right? Because there’s your gaping hole. No, not Medicare; that’s audited. We know where that money’s going, so while it’s undeniably substantial and in need of some repair, it’s at least within expected parameters for its current structure.

      The trillions spent by the DoD to pathetically (potentially criminally) mismanage every aspect of their own existence, though? Talk about low hanging fruit! As a conservative, I guess you talk a good game, but I’m a bit sick of the duplicity. We need to get realistic about killing our darlings if we want a leaner government, and military waste has been overlooked for far too long.

      1. Our problem in Canada is not balancing the budget. For many years now starting with the previous Liberal governments the federal deficit has been reduced. The conservatives overall have been good in continuing that practice. Canada is the only OECD country with that kind of track record. Of course this is much easier when not burdened with massive defense spending.

        The problem is that the Harper government is exclusively focused on resource extraction, and is blatantly anti-science when they perceive any thread to their economic prerogative.

        As a Canadian tax-payer I have very little patience for a federal government keeping research from me that my tax dollars payed for. Nor do I have any hope that a government so obsessed with resource extraction will get serious about fusion research, or for that matter, any other approach to sustainable energy production.

        1. Just to be clear on this: Of course Canada needs to develop its natural resources in a responsible manner. And there’s been some really inspired efforts to reduce the environmental footprint (well worth a blog post in its own right).

          But Canada will be much better off if it retains a strong industrial basis to add value to these resources within its borders, and if it manages to draw on a diverse energy mix. Turning it into a Saudi Arabia of the North is not good government.

    1. In the certain knowledge that some, perhaps most, of the avenues explored will be dead ends. And that, yes, there will be some “fraud and waste”. But we have a self-inflicted energy emergency—what a shame nobody wanted to listen to Jimmy Carter—and we should simply shovel money at possible solutions. As the Keynesians have shown, even wasteful spending can revive an economy. And the vaunted private sector, focused exclusively on short-term profits, has failed miserably to step up to the plate.

  3. Oh yes, how could the Canadian government not abandon the resource sector that is fuelling the national economy and supplying millions of Canadians with jobs and making our bloated/inefficient social safety net programs possible???

    Instead they should be reading Popular Science and funding every cool project they can find, even if like most, they never come to reality! Let’s shut down western Canadian oil and natural gas extraction and also mining in the east, plung Canada into a depression and serve taxpayers soup and bread until the miracle of solar powered, wind cooled, cold fusion reactors that pump out baby polar bears as a by product makes all of our lives better so we can spend more time watching what bieber or Cyrus is up to, hurrah!!!!

    Or… we could not bet the economy and the lives of millions of Canadians on unproven technologies and instead take a minute to think about where all that tax money for health or science comes from in the first place and not be in such a hurry to sit around drinking our lattes and urging it to just all go away.

    Canadian Conservatives are just as interested in real science as the left (science made the oilsands possible

    1. Don’t recall that I recommended anywhere that the Canadian government should abandon the resource sector. What I am arguing for is to not put all eggs in one basket.

      In fact there is an oil sand company investing in General Fusion, which just goes to show that you usually find more vision these days in the private sector than the public one. And that’s a problem, a society thrives best when there is visionary leadership across the board.

    1. Better make sure to get real Atlantic cod. The Fukushima situation is really farce and tragedy rolled into one. Japan makes the Russian response to Chernobyl appear almost professional.

  4. Greetings on behalf Pulsotron Team:

    From Europe our vision is even more hard to face. At least at the America´s you still have 4 private projets Running (as far as I know: General Fusion, Helion Energy, Focus Fusion and Tri-Alpha). Meanwhile, here, we only have ITER and no private projects (but us ). ITER budjet will cost (in a real estimation) 38 Billion Eur (51 Bill USD) and suffers strong delays day by day. Don´t forget it is a multi-goverment mega-project that many scientifics beleieves will arrive late if even susccesful. Most probably will end as a Research Plasma lab. Anyway every single effort counts to solve the problem of energy. Our biggest problem with ITER is that absorbs all funds available and leave nothing to other aproaches.

    At Pulsotron we strongly believe on Michio Kaku´s Words “Because fusion is such a well-defined process, several proposals have been made that are outside the usual mainstream of large-scale funding but that still have some merit. In particular, some of them might one day achieve fusion on a tabletop.”. The success will not come from the biggers on spite are necessary, but most probably will come from private small-sized projets, with other approaches.

    At Europe, we can not find any private project. Even us, to give you an idea of the situation, after winning a national price, having passed scientifics surveys and verifications and finally achieving ignition conditions for D-T (2 of 3 for Lithium, our target fuel) verifyed this results by App+, as I was telling, we have had to resort to present our project once again to a national contest not to develop the reactor but to develop the concept of “Technological Race for Fusion” (REPSOL foundation Prize) in the hope of sponsors will push the investors and goverment.

    All the best from Spain and seasons greeting to our canadians colleagues; good luck.. we are also running ;-D

    JL (CSO-Pulsotron)

    1. Very interesting concept. Wish you best success in securing funds and will keep following the development.

    1. Thank you 🙂

      (Originally, mistook this as a comment to another article, anyhow here’s the correct answer for General Fusion’s biggest challenge – as I understand it).

      Retaining plasma quality/stability as it compresses is the biggest hurdle. If the process doesn’t happen in a very symmetrical manner, they will not get to the required sweet spot in the temp-density diagram.

  5. “At least at the America´s you still have 4 private projets Running (as far as I know: General Fusion, Helion Energy, Focus Fusion and Tri-Alpha). ”

    There are others, for instance, Polywell (EMC2), Lockheed Martin (Skunkworks), and Sorlox. EMC2 has been funded by the US Navy and has been working on their 8th generation machine WB-8. As far as I know the design configuration of LM’s machine is not publicly known. Sorlox has a website and you can make up your own mind on that. At this time we are waiting to find out what the status of the WB-8 is as the current project completion was extended to April 2014, but a year ago there was a positive budgetary comment that the device scaled according to theory.

    My own worthless but fun guess is that there will be at least two dark horse fusion approaches that will economically succeed, GF MTF and EMC2’s Polywell, and I am hoping for effective net announcements this year from both. Try not to be too critical of my optimism, nor in my mad hatter confidence in it.

    I want to thank the blog site for this article and Nathan Gilliland, GF’s new CEO, for making an appearance here. I also want to extend my congratulations to him and say that as astute as GF has been so far, he must be a sharp guy. I look forward to great future things from your team. There is a lot of ground to cover after your upcoming “effective” net announcement 🙂 and commercial success. As a 30 year, now retired, power plant engineer from Tampa Electric Co. (Tampa Fl) utilities need a good steam boiler replacement to run their steam turbines.

    By the way, Governments have shown no judgement on what to throw money at, nor how much to throw. Keynesian economics may be mainstream thought, but if it was valid, why have we had the worst boom bust economic cycles as a result of their implemented theories? And, I always find it amusing that economists that tell politicians that the more they spend, the better, and that it doesn’t matter how much debt they pile up, is “mainstream!” With courtiers like that what could go wrong?
    Warmest regards

  6. I like your writing style. You introduce topics well. It helps that you got to visit them. I have to do everything second hand.

    The lithium blanket is a clear advantage. Many schemes (RFC, Polywell, ITER, NIF) are not designed to take the neutrons. The emphasis has always been on GET FUSION — not FUSION POWER. The shift is significant.

    1. Thanks much appreciated.

      Certainly adds a lot if one has the opportunity to go on site where the development is happening. The trip was a bit expensive but certainly worth it, helped that the two companies that I was interested in were closely located in the same place.

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