Joined: 25 Jul 2005
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, England
|Posted: Mon May 02, 2016 1:13 pm Post subject:
|The secretive, billionaire-backed plans to harness fusion
The founders of Amazon and Microsoft are putting their fortunes into little-known fusion energy companies. Jonathan Frochtzwajg digs into a story that has strange parallels with fiction.
By Jonathan Frochtzwajg
28 April 2016
Inside a laboratory near Vancouver in British Columbia, an alarm is blaring. In the middle of the industrial warehouse stands what looks like a cannon from a spaceship, about five metres long and festooned in wires.
None of the lab's red-coat-wearing technicians seem fazed by the noise. The siren, which alerts workers to don protective earmuffs in case of a blown fuse, precedes every test “shot” on this prototype nuclear fusion reactor – and these engineers have performed well over 50,000 shots over the past five years.
That speed – currently, 50 to 100 tests a day – would not be possible within the bureaucracy of a public lab, where the most prominent research in long-awaited fusion energy is being conducted. But this is a little-known company called General Fusion – funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and free to pursue technological revolution at its own, breakneck pace.
The combination of wealthy moguls and fusion is curiously reminiscent of the 2012 Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises
General Fusion is just one of a pack of private fusion firms to catch the attention of physicists and investors. Unencumbered by red tape, these venture-backed companies believe that they can find a faster, cheaper way to fusion than government-sponsored projects, and some very influential people agree: besides Bezos, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel are also backing firms at the forefront of fusion development. Some of these enterprises are rather shadowy: the company Allen is invested in, Tri Alpha, operated for years almost entirely in secret – until recently, it didn’t even have a website.
The combination of wealthy moguls and fusion is curiously reminiscent of the 2012 Batman movie ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, in which Bruce Wayne’s company builds a fusion reactor behind closed doors. The movie wouldn't win any awards for scientific accuracy, but it got at least one thing right: this world-changing technology may indeed be ushered into existence by a moonshot-minded magnate.
To many of us, fusion, whose advent has been predicted and postponed as many times as doomsday, is still far from reality. To these uber-successful businessmen, it's a good bet. What do they know that we don't?
(Credit: General Fusion)
The giant "spaceship cannon" that feeds the reactor at General Fusion (Credit: General Fusion)
For those whose memory of high-school physics is failing them: fusion is the process of smashing together atomic nuclei in order to combine them. In the course of this reaction, some of the mass of the nuclei is converted into energy – a lot of energy. Fusion is the mechanism that fuels the sun, and an uncontrolled fusion reaction (catalysed by a separate, fission reaction) yields much of an H-bomb's awesome power.
If that power could be harnessed, fusion would make an almost too-good-to-be-true energy source. The reaction itself requires no fossil fuels and the only byproduct is harmless helium. (While the most feasible type of reaction would cause the material encasing it to become radioactive, this radioactivity would die out more quickly than the by-products of more traditional nuclear power plants.)
The plans of Silicon Valley billionaires have strange parallels with Bruce Wayne of the Batman movie trilogy (Credit: Alamy)
Scientists haven't been able to figure out a way to get more energy out of a reaction than they put in
The problem is, overcoming the forces that cause nuclei to repel each other requires a massive amount of energy, and so far, scientists haven't been able to figure out a way to get more energy out of a reaction than they put in. Physicists and engineers have been at work on this thorny question for decades – during which time most laypeople have either forgotten about fusion or dismissed it as a thing of the distant future.
Scientists are making progress. They point to the fact that the rate at which they've increased fusion energy output is greater than that of Moore's Law, the famed predictor of computing power. They also cite Iter, an enormous, internationally-funded fusion reactor currently under construction in southern France; when completed, it will theoretically produce 10 times as much energy as it needs to run. Designed according to the most well-established fusion science, Iter is widely seen as the surest way to fusion power – its name is even a play on the Latin for “the way,” singular – and the project correspondingly receives much of the world's government fusion funding. But even supporters bemoan the bureaucracy of the seven-entity collaboration; Iter is billions over budget and years behind schedule, with the first reactor experiments not expected until at least 2025.
Enter the Bruce Waynes of the world. The approaches that people like Bezos and Allen are backing are long shots compared with Iter, prioritising engineering simplicity over scientific certainty. But with high risk comes the potential for high reward: an economical, scalable design for a fusion reactor is the kind of globe-altering idea that could earn an investor a lot of money – and, perhaps even more valuable amid Silicon Valley's boom and bust, an enduring legacy.
Amazon's Jeff Bezos has invested in the company General Fusion (Credit: Getty Images)
Amazon's Jeff Bezos has invested in the company General Fusion (Credit: Getty Images)
Maybe that's what Jeff Bezos saw when he invested in General Fusion. The Amazon chief executive, known for spending his wealth on grandiose projects, took a stake in the company in 2011 as part of a $19.5 million funding round.
Bezos’s minimalist website doesn't offer a phone number, and emails went unanswered
Whether Bezos seeks investment return or glory is unclear. His fund's minimalist website doesn't offer a phone number, and emails asking for comment for this story went unanswered. Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president of technology and corporate strategy, offered his own perspective on the motivations of Bezos though:
“My sense is, he sees the opportunity for entrepreneurship to crack some of these big problems – look what he's doing with his [manned spaceflight] company, Blue Origin,” Delage says. “At the same time, I think he sees that it can be difficult to find investors because of the scale of the challenges. He has invested in technologies that might not fit with the traditional venture-capital model, but that he still thinks should be supported because they could have a big impact.”
While Bezos may be General Fusion's best-known investor, he's far from the only one sold on the company: other contributors to the firm's more than $81 million in funding include clean-energy venture-capital firm Chrysalix; Canadian oil giant Cenovus; and Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the Malaysian government's investment arm.
(Credit: Getty Images)
A worker inside a plasma heating system in a more traditional government-funded fusion reactor design (Credit: Getty Images)
The concept that's attracting all this capital isn't original; an idea similar to General Fusion's was studied by the US Naval Research Laboratory in the 1970s. But it took a plasma physicist in the throes of a midlife crisis to dust off the old designs and recognise how modern technology could again make them relevant.
The year was 2001, and Michel Laberge, General Fusion's founder and chief scientist, had recently quit his increasingly unchallenging job at the laser-printing company Creo to take on bigger issues.
It took a plasma physicist in the throes of a midlife crisis to dust off the old designs
“I knew that we had a bit of a problem with energy on this planet, and I knew that fusion would be the solution,” remembers Laberge, a Quebec native who didn't learn English until he was 25 and still speaks with a heavy accent. “So, at my 40-year-old birthday, I quit my job and decided to do fusion.”
At Creo, Laberge had learned how to apply his physics knowledge – he has a PhD in plasma physics – to real-world product development. “I became a more concrete, practical dude,” he says. He also saw how a small company willing to stray off the beaten path can cut larger organisations off at the pass. “If you do the same as the other guy, and he's [spending] billions of dollars on it, you're not going to beat them – but if you do something slightly different, it has a chance of working.”
Laberge knew there were lots of off-path fusion approaches out there. “All those alternative ways of doing fusion were very little supported,” he explains, because the mainstream methods “were swallowing up most of the resources.” The approach he decided to pursue, called “magnetised target fusion,” was one such alternative.
(Credit: General Fusion)
Workers monitor tests at General Fusion - there have been thousands already (Credit: General Fusion)
Here's how it works: first, magnetic fields are used to confine a superheated plasma of volatile deuterium and tritium isotopes. This plasma is then injected into a sphere, where it's briefly contained in a vortex of liquid metal. Next, pistons converging towards the centre of the sphere simultaneously strike an anvil at the end of their cylinder, sending a shock wave into the plasma. This burst of energy causes the plasma to compress and the deuterium-tritium fuel to ignite – producing, in theory, a tremendous burst of energy.
You can watch a short animation illustrating the process below:
Importantly for investors, General Fusion's reactor doesn't demand state-of-the-art lasers or football-field-sized facilities, like the government-funded projects that Bezos, Laberge and company are seeking to outpace.
If this design is so great, why was it abandoned? When the newly unemployed Laberge unearthed old patents related to the idea, he saw the presumptive reason. Picture a balloon: if you compress it at one point more than at any other, it's likely to pop. A plasma is similar; if it's not compressed uniformly, it essentially falls apart. To work, the pistons must strike the anvils at precisely the same time. Laberge realised that you could only achieve that synchronicity with modern-day computers.
Supporting himself and his family with the proceeds from selling stock in his old company, Laberge spent the next couple of years developing the concept. He eventually built a small prototype – a humble-looking contraption still on display in General Fusion's reception area – and was able to produce a few neutrons. Laberge calls these his “marketing neutrons”; they were proof enough of his idea to bring in General Fusion's first significant investments.
Watch Michel Laberge’s 2014 TED talk:
Today, the company has some 65 employees and occupies two buildings in an unassuming office park near Burnaby Lake. Leading me into the high-ceilinged, cement-floored space behind the firm's offices, the now 54-year-old Laberge presents General Fusion's prototype reactor, a spiky sphere about four metres in diameter which looks a lot like a giant naval mine. Nearby are the “spaceship cannons,” which inject plasma into the sphere. Wires protrude from everything, transmitting reams of data to computers in a loft above for analysis.
Laberge says the company has adjusted the design of its reactor countless in the last few years. It's a sobering reminder of the enormity and complexity of General Fusion's undertaking that, more than a decade after its founding, the company is still working on clearing some fairly early fusion hurdles, like keeping its plasma at a high enough temperature for a long enough period for fusion to take place.
(Credit: General Fusion)
The arms of General Fusion's prototype reactor, which contain pistons, makes it look like a giant explosive mine (Credit: General Fusion)
“The plasma has lots of crazy ways of getting rid of the heat, and we understand that a lot better than we used to,” Laberge says. But despite progress, plasma temperature remains General Fusion's greatest challenge. “To control all those physics processes that can happen to cool the plasma down, that's the name of the game in fusion.”
Ex-physicist Kenneth Fowler, who literally wrote the book on fusion – The Fusion Quest – and who serves on General Fusion's advisory board, agrees with Laberge’s diagnosis. “The critical issue General Fusion is facing right now,” he says, “is the leakage of heat.” But, Fowler continues, that may be the company's last major hurdle. “I think they've done enough work on all the subsidiary issues that if they get past exactly where they are now, they have a good chance to be on their way.”
Other experts are more circumspect. “Extreme compression” – the process General Fusion is trying to achieve with plasma – “is very, very hard to control,” says Michael Zarnstorff, deputy director for research at the US government-funded Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “That's going to be a long, arduous thing to work on at General Fusion, I expect.”
"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung