General Fusion is on its way to making nuclear fusion a viable method of producing energy. Led by Dr. Michel Laberge, who founded the company in 2002, General Fusion aims to develop a clean, affordable energy source to replace fossil fuels.
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In 2023, the company expects to finish a Fusion Demonstration Plant (FDP) in the UK that will generate electricity from fusion at a commercial scale. While physicists have been working to harness fusion for years, General Fusion’s FDP would be a big step towards putting fusion on the market.
Nuclear Fusion vs. Fission
In the past, nuclear power plants have used fission rather than fusion. Fission involves splitting a larger atom – usually either Uranium or Plutonium – into two. Fusion is the process of pushing two smaller atoms together until they are bonded (ex: two hydrogen atoms fusing into one helium atom).
Both fusion and fission create a lot of energy in the form of heat, which can subsequently be captured and used to power steam generators. Nuclear fuel is incredibly energy dense. To put it in perspective, 1 kg of fusion fuel can replace 55,000 barrels of oil, 6,000,000 kg of natural gas, or 10,000,000 kg of coal.
Laberge favors fusion over fission mainly due to safety: fusion does not produce long term, radioactive waste, and, while the chances of a fission plant melting down are extremely low, a fusion plant offers even safer energy production, according to Laberge. “[Fusion] is nature’s way of making energy. The sun and all the stars in the universe run on fusion,” says Laberge.
Additionally, the fuel for fusion is abundant. General Fusion’s process relies on hydrogen, which means that fuel can be found wherever there is water. According to the company: “Power plants are expected to be placed anywhere, powered only by hydrogen from water and emitting no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses. Their features have the potential to secure global access to energy with no geographical constraints, minimal land requirements, and the ability to be placed near consumers.”
The Issue with Fusion
The temperature required for fusion is pretty high: around 150 billion degrees celsius. Historically, this has been the main challenge in developing power plants that create more energy than they expend. Not only is this process technologically challenging but it is also very costly.
Over the past 20 years, the engineers at General Fusion have fine-tuned a fusion process known as Magnetized Target Fusion or MTF.
The process is complex and involves shooting hydrogen plasma into a vortex of liquid metal that is then pressurized by pistons. Key to the process is the idea that more pressure results in more heat and energy. Instead of heating the plasma directly, hydrogen plasma is compressed to such an extent that it achieves the temperature required for fusion. From there, the heat generated is absorbed by the liquid metal and used to create steam. Some of the output energy helps power the next fusion, and the rest is sent to generate electricity through steam generators.
Fusion at Scale
General Fusion is at a critical point. If the company is successful with its demonstration power plant, they could pave the path for fusion to enter the energy market. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board. The facility is expected to be complete later this year with operations scheduled to begin in 2027.
Only time will tell if General Fusion will be successful. Regardless, General Fusion and other companies continue to drive innovation in fusion technology, bringing it closer to market viability.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh.