One of the Big Challenges of the Future Economy: The density of manufactured energy
TheFutureEconomy.ca: What is nuclear fusion and why is it important for our future?
Christofer Mowry: People are generally familiar with nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms. Nuclear fusion is exactly the opposite. Instead of splitting a large atom like uranium, you are basically putting two small atoms together. And that process can also release a considerable amount of energy – actually, hundreds of times more energy than nuclear fission can. But the advantages do not stop there. The problem with splitting a big atom is that the two pieces that are left are what is called radioactive material, and that is where you get into problems of waste and safety concerns and all the things that society worries about regarding nuclear fission. Fusion does not have any of those problems because there is no radioactive material left over; in our case you combine two isotopes of hydrogen, which we take from seawater, and you basically end up with helium, which is an inert gas. That gives you an energy source with all the benefits of today’s nuclear, such as zero carbon emissions and on-demand energy, but with no chance of a meltdown or waste disposal issues.
“Fusion is at an inflection point right now.”
Fusion is also about 100 times more energy dense than fission. In this regard, both of these technologies try to offer and resolve one of the big challenges of the future economy, which focuses on the density of manufactured energy. If we project down the road toward the end of the century, most people will be living in mega cities with populations that could be bigger than 75 million. That level of concentration of people and economy requires a very dense source of energy. Typically these mega cities are not conveniently located next to places like the big rivers of Quebec, so the logistical challenges of finding and supplying fuel for power plants that make electricity and energy are considerable. So if we have a technology that basically manufactures energy effectively, with no supply chain, we can bypass that very big challenge. In that regard, fusion is an absolutely essential component of the future energy mix.
We have been hearing about fusion for many decades already. Where does the science stand and what are some of the drivers that support its development today?
I think that fusion is at an inflection point right now. If you look back over the last 50 years, they have been a time of building fundamental knowledge around the science of plasma physics and fusion. If you look at the big government programs, they have really moved the ball down the field in terms of basic understanding of how this all works. But the industry has been challenged by figuring out how to put it together in a practical way that can make it cost effective. That is where we see an opportunity.
“Fusion is an absolutely essential component of the future energy mix.”
In many ways it’s comparable with what Blue Origin or SpaceX are doing by revolutionizing access to space. We are in a moment in time where key enabling technologies, such as additive manufacturing or 3D printing, high-speed digital control systems, big data analytics and others, are maturing and opening the door to more innovative ways of solving the fusion challenge. In the same way SpaceX built on 50 years of rocketry by NASA but then brought in private industry innovation and SpaceX’s own enabling technologies to basically rethink the challenge of accessing space in a better, faster, cheaper way. That is exactly what is happening right now in the fusion industry and that is why we are seeing this suite of private fusion ventures springing up all over the world. They are taking advantage of enabling technologies and combining them with 50 years of advances in basic fusion science to bring this source of energy to the grid.
What role is government playing in enabling the development and commercialization of this technology? Has financing been a challenge?
Governments around the world have been providing the foundation for advancing the basic science of fusion energy and plasma physics, and they continue to do so by investing billions of dollars into the thousands of scientists and engineers who are experts in fusion science. General Fusion needs to leverage that. We are not trying to – and we cannot afford to – recreate all of that infrastructure. What we must do is take the groundwork of fundamental science laid by governments and combine it with what private industry is good at doing: innovating breakthroughs and finding new ways of making things happen quickly. We are basically focused on commercializing this technology in a very accelerated time horizon, so our thesis is that it is time to take our version of fusion out of the lab and into the field.
“What we must do is take the groundwork of fundamental science laid by governments and combine it with what private industry is good at doing: innovating breakthroughs and finding new ways of making things happen quickly.”
We have been pleasantly surprised not only at the amount of support we have received over the first 10 years of our existence from private industry, but also from government. We have received two grants from the Canadian Government’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) program. We have received this strong support in spite of the fact that we have really been in early stage mode up until now. I do not think it will be a problem to continue to find financial support for what we are trying to do because the timeline for our commercialization effort makes General Fusion relevant in the broader geopolitics of energy and climate change, especially given the market dynamics in the energy industry right now and the search for a new path forward. We’re talking about maturing the technology to a point that makes it viable in the next decade – that puts it on a timeline that is relevant to policy makers and makes them think about this very differently to the way they have in the past. That gets them interested and gets them to support what you are doing.
Where does General Fusion’s technology fit in the global race towards nuclear fusion, and how do you envision the sector’s development over the next decades?
General Fusion’s founder, Michel Laberge took a different approach to fusion that places practicality and simplicity front and center. The landscape of fusion technologies is generally divided in two camps. On the one hand you have these very large tokamak machines, which make a large plasma and heat it up in a steady state condition for a long time to create fusion conditions. This approach is very expensive, requires massive magnets, massive machines, and is therefore a multibillion-dollar effort. On the other end of the spectrum, you have what is called laser fusion or inertial confinement, which dispenses with the magnets and basically tries to smash little frozen pellets of hydrogen to super high densities using lasers. That is supposed to happen within a timescale of nanoseconds, so as you can imagine, it is an incredibly complicated problem and very expensive lasers are required. Both of these approaches have so far focused on the fundamental science, but are yet to demonstrate a viable pathway to a power plant.
“We’re talking about maturing the technology to a point that makes it viable in the next decade – that puts it on a timeline that is relevant to policy makers and makes them think about this very differently to the way they have in the past.”
We have what we consider to be a more balanced approach where we apply some magnetic plasma confinement and we also apply compression. Combined with the enabling technologies we discussed earlier, this opens the door to creating a fusion architecture that is simpler, less complex and less technically challenging. All this taken together leads us to project that we’ll be in a position to demonstrate a pre-commercial facility over the next five years.
The next step would be a commercial demonstration plant, which would likely be another five-year effort. So we are looking at a timeframe of 10 years to commercialization, which is toward the end of the next decade. While that might seem like a long time, if you look at the timescales for large energy projects, this is right in the sweet spot.
“The transformative initiatives that are happening in and around the energy industry really require a clean, reliable, cost effective base load supply of electricity – fusion can provide that.”
At that stage ten years from now you’ll have the first power plants generating electricity from seawater, with no waste, no emissions and no fuel supply chain. Power generation would be modular meaning it would be made up of individual power plants that are a couple of hundred megawatt-size, and if an 800 MW power plant is required, four of them would be put together. We are therefore trying to target a size of a couple hundred megawatts, which is the perfect size for incremental energy addition around the world in both developing countries with weak power grids and developed countries that require the replacement or repurposing of old power plants.
These power plants will operate on demand and will provide a good complement to intermittent renewables like wind and solar. This is the type of change that will really enable and support other big energy-related initiatives, such as the electrification of the transportation sector. I see that as a great example of the transformative initiatives that are happening in and around the energy industry really require a clean, reliable, cost effective base load supply of electricity – fusion can provide that.
“Canada offers a great platform from which to lead in the transformation of energy for the future economy.”
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What is your current assessment of Canada’s energy landscape and your vision for our energy future?
Canada enjoys a special place in terms of its overall technological position. It is one of the most advanced countries in the world. It also enjoys a very forward-looking energy policy framework with a government that is also quite progressive in that regard, and so Canada offers a great platform from which to lead in the transformation of energy for the future economy. I think Canada is going to lead in the shift away from hydrocarbons to electric vehicles, and that is going to be supported by a power generation mix that will really be representative of what we are going to see toward the end of the century, which is a mix of base load clean energy from fusion coupled with renewables.