Science News

Startups bring new attitude to fusion quest

Image: Prototype fusion reactor
General Fusion is working on a prototype fusion reactor. (Credit: General Fusion)

The lab where a company called General Fusion is trying to spark an energy revolution looks like a cross between a hardware store and a mad scientist’s lair. Bins full of electrical gadgets are piled high against the walls. Capacitors recycled from a bygone experiment are stacked up like bottles in wine racks. Ten-foot-high contraptions bristle with tangled wires and shiny plumbing.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president for strategy and corporate development, makes sure nothing is turned on when he takes a visitor through the lab, which is tucked away in a bland industrial park near Vancouver. He’s worried about the voltage.

“If you get a broken wire or something like that, you get a very loud bang,” Delage explains.

His company and others are looking for a bang of a different sort: a smashing together of superhot hydrogen atoms that produces a net gain in energy. Nuclear fusion. It’s the same mass-to-energy reaction that’s behind the sun’s radiative power and the blast of a hydrogen bomb, but scaled down to a manageable level for power generation.

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EMC2 revives its quest for nuclear fusion

Image: Plasma glow
Plasma glows inside EMC2 Fusion’s test device during a high-energy shot in 2013. (Credit: EMC2 Fusion)

After languishing in limbo for most of the last year, EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. says it’s back in business with an unorthodox concept for nuclear fusion power plants.

The concept is variously known as Polywell fusion, inertial electrostatic confinement or magnetic cusp confinement..

If anyone ever finds a way to harness fusion – the reaction that powers the sun – it could usher in an era of low-cost, plentiful, relatively clean energy. Lots of research teams are trying to do it, ranging from the international ITER consortium to private companies such as Lockheed Martin, Tri Alpha Energy, General Fusion, Helion Energy, LPPFusion and EMC2. So far, no one’s produced a net gain in energy.

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