General Fusion Inc. of Burnaby, B.C., may look like a sophisticated nuclear research company. It’s also the manifestation of a mid-life crisis. A decade ago, physicist Michel Laberge and engineer-executive Doug Richardson were working together at another B.C. firm making software for print designers. When Laberge turned 40 he came to a realization, says Richardson: “[Michel] didn’t want to help cut down forests anymore.”
Today Laberge is the president and chief technology officer—with Richardson as CEO—of a small company that hopes to become the first to get more energy out of a man-made experimental nuclear fusion reaction than it puts in. General Fusion has raised more than $33 million to date from a mix of government eco-research programs and private investors, including Amazon.com CEO-founder Jeff Bezos.
Among the partners, one stands out as especially counterintuitive: this summer the company received funding from Calgary-based oil sands company Cenovus. In backing fusion research, Cenovus is supporting what could become an alternative to its own business, if fusion generation can ever shed its long-standing pie-in-the-sky status. “For us, the investment isn’t a large amount,” says Dave Hassan, who oversees the Cenovus eco- fund. “For a small research company with cash requirements it’s big.” Fusion is a long shot, Hassan concedes, “but it’s a game changer if it works—carbon-free energy, essentially, forever.”
Fusion is the process that keeps the sun lit as the gravitational pressures at its core cram together atomic nuclei whose positive charges would otherwise repel. The approaches to earthbound fusion generally regarded as the most promising involve expensive, huge-scaled technologies—vast but finicky doughnut-shaped magnets and high-energy lasers. General Fusion believes there is room for a cheaper old-school attack: it aims to create a bubble of high-energy plasma within a shell of liquefied metal and bombard it with acoustic waves.
In plain English, the generator would hammer holy hell out of the “bubble,” briefly creating the density conditions for nuclear ignition. Ultimately, the company intends to use pistons full of compressed gas to provide the required energy, but later this year, Richardson says cagily, they intend to try a one-off proof-of-concept demo using a “chemical driver.” He will not confirm that this is highfalutin talk for explosives.