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Fusion Energy: Paving the way for commercialization

BC innovator powers emissions-free electricity applying the same process that powers the sun.


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General Fusion’s magnetized target fusion system uses a sphere filled with molten lead-lithium that’s pumped to form a vortex. A pulse of magnetically confined plasma fuel is then injected into the vortex. An array of pistons drive a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions. This process is repeated as the heat from the reaction is captured in the liquid metal and used to generate electricity via a steam turbine.

Source: General Fusion

The global temperature is rising as a result of greenhouse gases generated by human activity. Thirty-seven percent of those emissions are coming from the generation of electricity, most directly from coal, natural gas and oil, says the World Nuclear Association. Earth’s human population is to reach almost 9 billion by 2040, and demand for electricity is expected to increase by 43% over the next 20 years, according to a United Nations intergovernmental panel.

So the world needs more emissions-free electricity and a Canadian clean tech company is developing a technology that, if successful, would dramatically alter its production.

General Fusion has picked up a $43 million investment from the federal government to develop a first-of-its-kind, large-scale prototype plant to produce electricity from fusion energy. Founded in 2002, the company currently employs more than 70 people in Burnaby, BC and is the only Canadian company working on commercializing the technology.

How does it work? Fusion technology applies the same process that powers the sun: two lighter atomic nuclei combining to form a heavier nucleus while releasing energy.

Fusion reactors generally use hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) to create confined plasma of millions of degrees using, in General Fusion’s case, magnetic methods to produce energy. The company’s PI3 plasma injector, preceded by 18 increasingly sophisticated machines over the past decade, went into action in December 2017, generating its first plasma.

“This is an important milestone for the company, successfully translating the knowledge gained and technology developed from over 150,000 plasma experiments into a machine that is of a comparable scale to what is needed for commercial fusion power plant,” said CEO Chris Mowry at the time.

Fusion reaction

General Fusion’s magnetized target fusion system uses a sphere filled with molten lead-lithium that’s pumped to form a vortex. A pulse of magnetically confined plasma fuel is then injected into the vortex. An array of pistons drive a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions. This process is repeated as the heat from the reaction is captured in the liquid metal and used to generate electricity via a steam turbine.

Plasma fuel is delivered into a compression chamber where it’s rapidly heated to ignition conditions, releasing energy. It’s much like a diesel engine, but the hydrogen fuel coming out of the injector is 5 million degrees C and will be heated by compression to 150 million degrees C, the temperature required for plasma to burn in a fusion reaction.

The company says fusion energy has been proven in laboratories, where closely contained reactions release energy from superheated hydrogen gas. There are no carbon dioxide emissions and the process does not produce high-level nuclear waste.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, if there’s a failure, fusion reactors automatically come to a halt within a few seconds, and produce no harmful effects.

General Fusion will invest at least $150 million in research and development with the potential for more than $250 million in additional investment for the construction of a demonstration plant.

The project would be power plant size to confirm commercial viability, minus the complexity.

Successfully commercialized, fusion energy has the potential to safely provide carbon-free and competitively priced electricity, on demand, anywhere in the world.

1 Comment » for Fusion Energy: Paving the way for commercialization
  1. Maury Markowitz says:

    So I’m confused… has GF demonstrated any of its claims? It has been in business since 2002, 17 years ago. In that time has it:

    1) generated any actual fusion in any form?
    2) created a stable lead vortex?
    3) collapsed the vortex?

    I see lots of plans and press releases, but looking over them I can’t see anything that might be considered measurable progress to their goals. 17 years is a long time, it only took Scyla 3 to demonstrate fusion in the 1950s.

    I spite of this rather unimpressive history, it seems reporters are lining up to tell us about how great it’s all going to be in the future.

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