General Fusion has passed a critical milestone in developing a prototype system for its Fusion Development Plant (FDP).
The firm’s plasma compression prototype is being used to demonstrate its latest magnetized target fusion (MTF) technology.
Commissioned in early 2021, the prototype drives a symmetric collapse of a large liquid vortex cavity in tens of milliseconds. Because the FDP uses a collapsing liquid metal cavity to heat and compress plasma fuel to fusion conditions at 100 million degrees C, successfully operating the prototype was required in order to scale up its development process.
Jay Brister, General Fusion’s chief business development officer, said the company’s MTF method sits “in between” Tokamak-style fusion and inertial confinement fusion, which uses lasers for compression.
The impact of General Fusion’s milestone
Brister called the milestone a big “de-risking” activity for Fusion as it prepares to transition from its Vancouver testbed to the FDP the company is building at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) near Culham, Oxfordshire in the U.K.
“We’re affirming that No. 1, we can do it, and No. 2, we know how that needs to be incorporated into the design,” Brister said. “And, we can build that into our demonstration facility in the U.K.”
The CCFE site was chosen after a three-year global search. Chief among the benefits, Brister said, is that it is also the home of the Joint European Torus (JET), a fusion research facility.
Last June, as reported by Nature, JET was the first facility to fuse even quantities of tritium and deuterium, another isotope of hydrogen. The site’s status as one of the “handful of sites on the planet where there’s a pre-existing fusion supply chain” was a huge draw for Brister and General Fusion.
General Fusion will be “putting a shovel in the ground” for its plant this fall, with plans to be operational in 2025. The plan is for the facility to be 70 per cent of the size of a commercial reactor.
Last October, the project received $130 million from investors including Jeff Bezos, the American entrepreneur who founded Amazon.
Following its completion, General Fusion will enter into a long-term commercial lease with the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority. The goal for the 3,000-ton, 11,000-square-metre-building is to demonstrate an understanding of the economics involved in constructing a commercial power plant with this technology.
The plan is to use data and experience from the FDP to construct General Fusion’s first commercial power plant, which it hopes to have in operation early in the 2030s.
Plans for carbon-free electricity
Beyond that, the goal for the company is carbon-free electricity production. Brister noted that with current commitments to net-zero by 2030 or 2050, electrification is predicted to rise 200 per cent. Dealing with that conundrum – producing that additional electricity – is essentially the last piece of the net-zero puzzle.
“So how do we go forward to do that? Renewables by far and away have some of the best economics and energy space today and moving forward,” Brister said. “But with that technology, there’s also an intermittency issue that has to be addressed because sun shines, wind blows, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“So what you need is a complimentary carbon-free technology to go along with that, along with other carbon-free sources of energy to be able to round out a carbon-neutral portfolio to supply the electricity grid.”
The forward momentum in fusion isn’t just limited to the Culham plant.
According to Brister, it took about 20 years (prior to the fall of 2021) for private-sector investment in fusion development to reach an aggregate of $2 billion. An October 2021 study from the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority reported there are now at least 35 fusion companies, 18 of which have received $2.25 billion (Cdn) in private-sector funding.
Four companies, Commonwealth Fusion Systems in Massachusetts, California’s TAE Technologies, Oxford-based Tokamak Energy and General Fusion, account for 85 per cent of private sector funding in the space. Fifty per cent of all fusion companies were founded in the last five years.
“This year is going to be a point where the tangibility of fusion is going to present itself,” Brister said. “But maybe it won’t just be us, right?”
General Fusion is headquartered in Vancouver with locations in London, U.K., and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The company was established in 2002 and has been a member of the Cleantech Global 100 list in 2014, 2015, 2016/17 and 2021.