British Columbia

Fusion experiment by B.C. firm raises concerns

A company in B.C.'s Lower Mainland hopes to trigger a man-made nuclear fusion reaction, which some experts say poses serious dangers.
This graphic cutaway representation shows how the fusion reaction would be achieved. ((General Fusion))

A company in B.C.'s heavily populated Lower Mainland hopes to trigger a controlled, man-made nuclear fusion reaction — something no one has accomplished, and which some experts say poses serious dangers.

General Fusion Inc., located in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, says on its website that its goal is, "to generate affordable, safe and plentiful energy without greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, or radioactive waste."

Fusion is the energy-production process that occurs in stars, like the sun. Fusion generates energy by joining atoms together, unlike conventional nuclear energy technology — or fission — which creates energy by splitting atoms.

But, while it is not a polluting technology, a fusion reaction could still be explosively dangerous, according to Vancouver physicist Erich Vogt.

Vogt is a professor and founder of the University of British Columbia's Triumf Nuclear Research Lab

"Of course there's a hazard, an explosive hazard," Vogt told CBC News. "It would be messy."

When asked if that means people could be hurt, Vogt said, "Yes, that's right."

But Vogt added he doesn't think such an explosion would ever happen — because he believes General Fusion's project simply won't work.

"I think it's pure nonsense, this whole project," he said.

Project may not be viable

General Fusion CEO Doug Richardson candidly admits the odds are against the project's success.

"It's less than 50 per cent, for sure," said Richardson, when asked how likely it would be that the company could create a fusion reaction.

University of B.C. physicist Erich Vogt says fusion reactions are potentially explosive. (CBC)
"We're going down … a path that's not well explored," he said. "I would put 20- to 30-per-cent chance of success."

It's a gamble that could generate huge returns by changing the way the world generates electrical power, which is why several companies and organizations around the world are spending huge sums as they seek to develop reliable and manageable nuclear fusion.

But Richardson said General Fusion hopes to accomplish a controlled reaction in less than three years, for about $40 million.

One-third of the budget will come from federal grants, with the rest coming from private investors like founder Jeff Bezos.

The company has about 60 employees working in a complex of four neighbouring warehouses.

Cold fusion fizzled

The prospects for man-made fusion lost public credibility in the late 1980s when some U.S. and British scientists claimed they'd accomplished a so called "cold fusion" reaction, which at the time heralded a new era of clean, cheap energy production. But the scientists' reported findings could not be duplicated and fusion's image fizzled.

Current research is focused on hot fusion.

General Fusion intends to build a three-metre-diameter steel sphere filled with spinning molten lead and lithium. Super-heated radioactive gas, called plasma, would be injected into the vortex and then the outside of the sphere would be pounded with 200 computer-synchronized pistons travelling thousands of kilometres an hour.

General Fusion CEO Doug Richardson says the project is safe and could be completed in less than three years. (CBC)
In theory, the resulting shock waves would compress the plasma and spark a fusion reaction for a few microseconds.

The heat generated in that brief time span would be 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.

The aim is to be able to repeat the process once every second without breaking the containment vessel.

But Richardson said he doesn't agree with Vogt's explosion scenario, saying fusion is not a dangerous process.

"Fusion is fundamentally, inherently failsafe," he said. "I plan to be standing right next to it, so I'm not worried about that whatsoever."

Regulatory questions

Richardson said General Fusion is still three years away from actually attempting a fusion reaction, and would not make the attempt in its current location on the Lougheed Highway, near the SkyTrain transit line and large residential neighbourhoods.

There are also questions as to whether or not an actual fusion reaction could legally occur in B.C. because the province has a ban on nuclear energy.

General Fusion's business licence in Burnaby is for research and development of alternative energy.

The company acknowledges that, in addition to its scientific challenges, there are formidable regulatory hurdles to clear before it can try to fire up its fusion reactor.

With files from the CBC's Eric Rankin