Fusion energy research company started in Snug Cove
General Fusion, a startup initiated in Snug Cove, has just received $12.7 million from Sustainable Technology Development Canada following a recent visit from the Prime Minister. Though the company has reached international acclaim, few on Bowen Island know its history.
In 2002, in what had previously been the Bowen Island gas station, a 40-year-old man was acting out on what he calls “a mid-life crisis.” In that dilapidated wood building across from the Snug Cove General Store, Dr.Michel Laberge was quietly attempting something big, --something that could become a global game changer with long-term implications. While it wasn’t the usual response to a mid-life crisis, Laberge, a plasma physicist, is any thing but an ordinary kind of guy. At 40, he began deliberating his life choices. “I was exposed to laser fusion when I was working on my PhD, and I wanted to do some high tech stuff. I liked space stuff. Space is very fun, but it’s not required for the planet,“ he explains. It was a time in his life to go big, or go home.
Laberge went big, and decided it was time to try to solve global warming. His strategy would be to generate fusion energy simply and inexpensively. This would be his new mission in life. He turned to friends and the government for seed money, and began charting his course.
Big labs were already generating some fusion energy, but it was still taking more energy to get the reaction going than the energy produced. Laberge wanted to try a different approach that would be cheaper, simpler, and efficient. He began to work on his idea at the Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation and Research. “I hacked on this thing, but after a year, the research centre shut down,” and Laberge moved his research to Snug Cove. “It was great, I could ride my bike home for lunch,” he says.
Laberge is known for his quick mind, his sense of humour and his passion for research. If asked about the lab, the physicist would patiently explain his work with hand gestures and a Quebecois accent as if describing a process for making a baguette that involved compressing and heating the ingredients.
Deceptively unassuming and looking more like a place for tinkering with old dirt bikes than plasma physics, what was happening inside the lab was work of global implications, but Laberge kept it simple. He took two existing schools of thought on how to generate fusion energy, took the best concepts from each, combined them into his own design and then built a simple prototype of a fusion machine no bigger than a dishwasher.
Unlike nuclear fission reactors, fusion energy does not use uranium as fuel; it cannot suffer from meltdowns or produce long-lived radioactive wastes. Laberge explains that, “in fission, you take a big nucleus, you break it apart in two, and it makes lots of energy, this is how a nuclear reactor works. Then there's fusion. --You take two small nuclei, you put them together, and you make helium. It makes lots of energy. This is nature's way of producing energy. The sun and all the stars in the universe are the result of fusion. The fuel from fusion comes from the ocean that you can extract for about one thousandth of a cent per kilowatt-hour.”
The challenge that Laberge was trying to overcome was that it takes a lot of energy to get two nuclei to fuse when they naturally repulse each other. Under great pressure, the two nuclei will collide with each other at great speed. The collision is what makes energy. While some big research labs had been able to generate some fusion energy, they use expensive and complicated systems of lasers and superconducting coils to get results.
For two years, Laberge beavered away on Bowen Island, using Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF,) to create pressure. Eventually, his hard work paid off and Laberge had a breakthrough. “After two years on Bowen I generated a few neutrons as a result of fusion reactions. I was pretty pleased,” he says in what surely must be one of his classic understatements. “But it didn’t happen in a single shot,” he explains. “You shoot, you do some tests, you make sure, and you get statistics.“ He continues, “the first time you get a signal, it’s interesting. --In physics, you go back, run a control test, and do it again to make sure. With the first signal, I thought it was garbage,” a misleading signal, “but it was good.“ He had done it. This would be the turning point for his work and in fusion energy research.
Once Laberge was completely sure of what he had accomplished he had something concrete to interest potential investors. “Now with my little neutrons there on Bowen, I went and found a business partner.”
Laberge had worked with Doug Richardson before, and Richardson was willing to come aboard without a salary. “We had to pitch 100 investors to get one. I would put on my suit and do a “show and tell.” We got a lot of “no’s, but then we got our first $1 million.”
The 2006 break-through in the Snug Cove garage would eventually attract $100 million from venture capital companies and private investors like Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. The first big influx of funds and investor confidence helped Laberge move from the little lab to a mainland location and scale up to a full size prototype. All eyes in the industry were now keeping watch on the Canadian start-up called General Fusion. Then, two years ago, Laberge took to the stage as a speaker at the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design,) Talks.
“When I started this fusion company in Snug Cove, I knew the big labs had much more resources than me. So I decided I would need to find a solution that is cheaper and faster.” “So we built this machine in this garage here,” says Laberge in his TED Talk, showing a slide of his Snug Cove lab. “We made a small machine and managed to squeeze out a little bit of neutrons.” Those neutrons were gold to him.
He explains his break-through approach:
“You take a big vat and you fill that with liquid metal, and you spin the liquid metal to open a vortex in the center, a bit like your sink. When you pull the plug on a sink, it makes a vortex. And then you have some pistons driven by pressure that goes on the outside, and this compresses the liquid metal around the plasma, and as it compresses it, it gets hotter, a bit like laser fusion and then it releases fusion energy. So, it's a bit of a mix between a magnetized fusion and the laser fusion. Both have a couple of very good advantages. The liquid metal absorbs all the neutrons and no neutrons hit the wall, and therefore there's no damage to the machine. The plasma gets hot, 150 million degrees C. This is why fusion is so hard to do. --It’s rather warm,” he says with his signature humour. He explains how “you can pump the liquid metal in a heat exchanger, make some steam, and spin a turbine. Steam-powered pistons are way cheaper than lasers or superconducting coils.”
Over the next few years, Laberge and General Fusion would continue to grow in status as leaders in the field of fusion technology.
Laberge has always been confident and radiated his own positive energy. He always believed he could help change the world. “It's not that fusion energy cannot be produced, the challenge is also to do it cost-effectively.“
Last fall, Time magazine looked at the future of fusion energy, and profiled General Fusion. The company has been the subject of attention in the media from magazines to television and radio across the continent and beyond.
Last month’s contribution of funds from the Canadian government is helping take General Fusion’s research to the next level in the global competition. Says Laberge, “the money will help the company to build a special plasma injector which will shoot plasma into the centre to help get the plasma dense enough, and stay hot long enough,” to satisfy Laberge and his team.
If the system works as planned, Laberge says that this will allow them to leapfrog the big labs that have been working on the technology for four decades.
“The big labs can get 50 per cent of the energy that they put in, which is way more than we have done.” On the other hand, he says, the big labs “are not cost effective. It’s too complex and would cost a huge amount of money. In physics, they are ahead, but many of the physicists who have worked at those labs say their technology can’t make a power plant. It’s too complicated. But, it’s great to learn from them.”
While Laberge is pleased about the new government funding he adds, “the world spends about 650 billion dollars a year in subsidies for oil and gas energy and some renewable energy. We spend one half of a percent of that on fusion. Considering that fusion could flat out save global warming, fusion should be better supported.”
The physicist says it will still take a couple years “to demonstrate we can make the extra energy, and it could be as long as 10 years before power plants are putting energy into the grid.”
No one knows how soon it will be before someone cracks the code, or who it will be, but there’s a good chance that it could be General Fusion. That little garage across from the grocery store, may one day wind up as a museum marking the turning point in the way the world generates energy.