In 1938, a brilliant scientist named Hans Bethe proved that fusing atoms rather than splitting them, a process called cold fusion, produces the enormous energy emitted by stars. It is the Holy Grail of scientists because it generates cheap, limitless and environmentally clean energy. A British Columbia startup called General Fusion is getting close to developing the world’s first fusion power plant. In June 2021, the company announced that it would build and operate its Fusion Demonstration Plant outside of London to prove their concept.

The joke about nuclear fusion energy is that it’s 30 years away and always will be, but it remains science’s Holy Grail because it generates cheap, limitless clean energy. Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms are squeezed together so tightly that they merge. The process is defined by Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 and happens naturally in the sun where sunlight is produced from crushing hydrogen into helium. 

The hunt for the fusion Holy Grail started at the dawn of the nuclear age. Atomic bomb inventor J. Robert Oppenheimer, besides being a brilliant nuclear physicist, was also a cultivated scholar and speaker of eight languages. Witnessing the mushroom cloud from the first nuclear bomb test soar over the New Mexico desert at 0530 local time on July 16, 1945, a passage from a sacred Hindu epic flashed through his mind: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Another brilliant scientist named Hans Bethe was there that day. Back in 1938, Bethe had proven that fusing atoms together, a process called cold fusion, can produce an endless supply of clean energy. By October 1949, Oppenheimer’s opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb led to accusations that he was a Communist supporter. In a twist of karmic justice, Bethe was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize for physics.

Since then, hundreds of the world’s top scientists at massive research organisations have burned through millions of dollars experimenting with futuristic lasers and particle beams in their hunt for the elusive fusion formula. But an upstart British Columbia company called General Fusion is leading the race for the fusion grail using a revolutionary process called magnetised target fusion. In June 2021, the company announced that it would build its Fusion Demonstration Plan outside of London to prove their concept. Construction will begin in 2022 and is due to be completed in 2025. 

The General Fusion Reactor

The General Fusion reactor looks like a shiny silver lunar module. Inside, hydrogen plasma is injected into a cylinder which is surrounded by a wall of spinning liquid metal. Hundreds of perfectly timed pneumatic hammers strike the cylinder wall with such force that it causes the mixture to compress and merge into helium, which would theoretically cause a fusion burst, setting off temperatures that only occur at the core of the sun. The heat is absorbed by the spinning liquid metal wall, is passed on to an exchanger and used to produce steam that drives a turbine to create electricity. It’s a bold, innovative method that hasn’t been attempted before. In September 2001, General Fusion’s founder and chief scientist Dr Michel Laberge quit his job designing cutting-edge lasers in Vancouver. Then he actually lived the cliché of a garage start-up, beavering away in a rented garage on an island off Vancouver. Four years later, Laberge re-emerged from the woods with a game-changing idea to revolutionalise nuclear fusion. Laberge realised the fast microprocessors, advanced materials and space-age control systems that he had used to make his lasers could make a mechanical fusion reactor actually work. 

In the academic arena, the General Fusion concept is either cheered or jeered. One unabashed fan is esteemed Berkeley plasma physics professor Dr. T. Kenneth Fowler. Fowler told Canadian Business that he found out about General Fusion when he attended a talk given by Laberge in 2007 at the University of California. “This may be the best idea I’ve heard. It probably resonated with me because I published a paper that wasn’t all that different. (General Fusion) just went for a shorter time scale.”

Cuckooland is Crowded

One of Canada’s leading particle physicists, Erich Vogt, leads the jeer section. Vogt, who helped found TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory of nuclear and particle physics in Vancouver, refers to General Fusion’s lab as “Cloud Cuckooland” and calls the theory “unproven science in the guise of technology development.” In spite of his comments, Cuckooland is getting crowded and is awash in venture capital funding. 

There are over 20 startups chasing the general fusion dream competing with massive, well-funded organisations like the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California, which is the size of three football stadiums. It uses 196 high-powered lasers to fire 500 trillion watts in a single shot lasting 20 billionths of a second into a tiny gold cylinder full of hydrogen. The $3.5-billion project was completed five years behind schedule and was almost four times over budget. In France, a multinational reactor project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is using enormous magnets to hold plasma in a doughnut-shaped vessel while it is heated with microwaves and particle beams in an attempt to create nuclear fusion energy. 

Bezos First to Fund

But the French project is already a decade behind schedule and is facing over $4 billion in cost overruns. As these bureaucrat-heavy projects lumber along, lean, nimble companies like General Fusion are flexible enough to get results. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos first invested in General Fusion nearly a decade ago and the company has been steadily raising cash since then, hauling in over USD$200 million to date and attracting renowned experts from all over the world. 

The company’s first major milestone came in 2016, when the switch was flipped on the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector. If the London pilot plant reaches a fusion-relevant temperature of more than 100 million degrees Celsius, it will prove the concept of magnetised target fusion, marking a critical step towards commercialisation and finally give Michel Laberge a chance to create his star on Earth.

Featured image by: General Fusion