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General Fusion gets a $65M boost for power plant

General Fusion plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion says it has closed on a $65 million equity financing round that will spark the launch of a program to design, construct and operate a demonstration nuclear fusion power plant.

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Canada invests $38M in General Fusion’s research

General Fusion plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

The Canadian government says it’s investing $37.5 million (49.3 million Canadian dollars) in General Fusion, a British Columbia company that aims to build a prototype plant powered by nuclear fusion.

Funding from Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund was announced today by Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan and Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development.

In a news release, Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion said the government’s backing would support the creation of 400 new jobs and boost the development of a “first-of-its-kind, large-scale prototype plant that will demonstrate a practical approach to commercializing affordable, abundant, safe and emission-free electricity from fusion energy.”

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Fusion ventures learn lessons about expectations

Plasma injector
General Fusion says it has the world’s largest and most powerful plasma injector, capable of creating a ring of hydrogen plasma 6 feet in diameter and heating it to millions of degrees. This machine is a prototype of the fuel injector for a fusion power plant. (General Fusion Photo)

The promise of natural gas, shale oil, renewable energy and conventional nuclear power all pale in comparison to the promise of clean, potentially abundant fusion power — and that’s attracting increasing attention from science-savvy entrepreneurs.

Almost two dozen private ventures are trying to crack the fusion challenge, backed by a combined total of more than a billion dollars of private investment, said Chris Mowry, the CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. (One Seattle venture, CTFusion, is currently looking for lab space.)

Mowry drew parallels to the enthusiasm sparked by SpaceX in the launch industry.

“I feel like this is the SpaceX moment for fusion,” he said today at a Seattle breakfast session on commercial fusion ventures, organized by the CleanTech Alliance.

But when you ask about the time frame for commercializing fusion power, the answers get squishier. And there’s good reason for that.

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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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Want to do fusion research? Here’s your chance

Image: Brendan Cassidy at General Fusion
General Fusion’s Brendan Cassidy shows off a test reactor in Burnaby, B.C. (Photo by Alan Boyle)

It’s not clear when fusion power will pay off, but there’s a way to earn a cool $20,000 in fusion research. And you don’t even have to be a plasma physicist or an energy entrepreneur.

All you have to do is make perfect sense out of the data generated by the plasma experiments being conducted by General Fusion in Burnaby, B.C.

“The challenge is basically to come up with a metric for predicting the performance of a plasma shot,” Brendan Cassidy, the company’s crowdsourcing project leader, told GeekWire.

General Fusion is a private venture that’s attracted tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, including investments from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. Over the past five years or so, the company has conducted about 100,000 experiments. Those experiments, or shots, involve injecting blobs of super-heated hydrogen gas into plasma chambers and studying how they behave. A single shot lasts somewhere around a thousandth of a second.

“Our shot data includes signals from nearly 100 probes measuring things like magnetic field strength, plasma density and the spectral composition of plasma light,” Cassidy explained in a blog post outlining the challenge. “There are also configuration settings for each shot, and calculated single point, or scalar, metrics.”

The quality of the plasma varies from shot to shot, and General Fusion’s researchers don’t fully understand why. It’d be nice to distill the shot data into algorithms that predict which settings will produce the best shots.

Toward that end, hundreds of gigabytes of data from previous shots are being made available for a challenge titled “Data-Driven Prediction of Plasma Performance.” After signing up, competitors can download the data, look for correlations and patterns, devise their algorithms and send them in for evaluation by March 9.

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