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Small Team Hopes to Conquer Fusion

Vancouver researchers hope to find the holy grail of successful fusion powered electricity generation.

A 15-year-old company in Vancouver, B.C. is developing commercial fusion power that could one day produce abundant electricity without creating the volume of lethal waste kicked out by today’s nuclear plants.

General Fusion employs 50 scientists backed with $100 million in funding. In its media releases it claims to be “pursing the fastest and most practical path to commercial fusion energy.”

Fusion power, which replicates the energy creation processes of the sun, has long been a holy grail for energy researchers. Using readily available resources, it would produce vast amounts of energy and could prove vital in efforts to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels and combat climate change.

But the technical hurdles of getting atomic nuclei to fuse rather than split are enormous.

That is why seven nations, including the United States, joined together more than a decade ago to form the ITER research project. The international team hopes to solve the challenge of fusion at a complex it has built in the south of France, an undertaking that is costing many billions of dollars.

The Energy Times last week chatted with Fred Buckman, chairman of General Fusion, to discuss the effort now underway at General Fusion. Buckman has held many leadership positions in the energy sector; he served as chief executive at PacifiCorp. Also on General Fusion’s board sits Jacques Besnainou, former president and chief executive of Areva, the French nuclear giant.

I asked Buckman how his small team could rival the efforts being mounted by ITER in Cadarache, France.

“ITER is throwing a lot of money at it,” Buckman said. “If money makes technology work, ITER will beat us. We are focused on a process that has made real progress. I feel good about our prospects.”

Courtesy of ITER

Representatives of seven nations sign the ITER agreement in November 2006 with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris.

Here is how General Fusion describes its technology on its web site:

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

Buckman took over as chairman last month and is currently building a business plan and raising funds. He said the company hopes to build a prototype of its system later this year. But precision in scheduling may be elusive, he conceded.

“It is a mistake to forecast when you will learn things you do not know,” Buckman said. However, he said,  “We’re off in our corner of the world making real progress.”

Buckman, who has also worked for the Shaw Group engineering firm, said that many pioneering new nuclear startups are trying to succeed.

Courtesy of General Fusion

Fred Buckman

NuScale Power -  based, like Buckman, in Oregon -  has developed small modular nuclear reactors, and Terrestrial Energy, is developing a molten salt reactors.

“There is room for all of them to reach the finish line,” Buckman said. A common challenge, he said, continues to be abundant, low-cost natural gas.

Meanwhile, Buckman, at age 71 enjoys negotiating the hurdles and opportunities he and his colleagues now confront. “I have no intention to give up the good fight. I love it.”

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