General Fusion, a startup in Vancouver, Canada, says it can build a prototype fusion power plant within the next decade and do it for less than a billion dollars. So far, it has raised $13.5 million from public and private investors to help kick-start its ambitious effort.
Unlike the $14 billion ITER project under way in France, General Fusion’s approach doesn’t rely on expensive superconducting magnets–called tokamaks–to contain the superheated plasma necessary to achieve and sustain a fusion reaction. Nor does the company require powerful lasers, such as those within the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to confine a plasma target and compress it to extreme temperatures until fusion occurs.
Instead, General Fusion says it can achieve “net gain”–that is, create a fusion reaction that gives off more energy than is needed to trigger it–using relatively low-tech, mechanical brute force and advanced digital control technologies that scientists could only dream of 30 years ago.
It may seem implausible, but some top U.S. fusion experts say General Fusion’s approach, which is a variation on what the industry calls magnetized target fusion, is scientifically sound and could actually work. It’s a long shot, they say, but well worth a try.
“I’m rooting for them,” says Ken Fowler, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering and plasma physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading authority on fusion-reactor designs. He’s analyzed the approach and found no technical showstoppers. “Maybe these guys can do it. It’s really luck of the draw.”