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Could Canadian fusion power be in play by 2030?

Universities rally around B.C. company in push for national fusion energy strategy, funding

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 5:12pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 5:14pm

By Nelson Bennett

In 1944, Canadian scientists began working on nuclear energy as a power source, and in 1952 the Canadian government got behind the effort by forming Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.

Canadian scientists went on to develop the CANDU reactor – a technology that provides about 16 per cent of Canada’s electricity (mostly in Ontario) and has been exported to India, Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, Romania and China. A spin-off has been the production of radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine.

A group of Canadian universities and institutes that includes the Fedoruk Centre for Nuclear Innovation is now rallying around Burnaby’s General Fusion in hopes of establishing a similar national strategy for Canadian fusion power.

“They’re an indigenous technology and potentially they’re considered to be one of the leaders in this field,” said Matthew Dalzell, partnerships manager at the Fedoruk Centre.  “So what can we do to help build a strategy that would advance fusion?”

The group, which includes the universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta, is pitching a Fusion 2030 strategy that calls on the Canadian government to provide C$125 million (US$94 million) in funding over five years to help Canadian universities rebuild the academic capacity they once had in plasma physics and related fields.

“We want to get back in the game,” Dalzell said. “We’ve been on the sidelines. Now fusion is coming. We have a choice: do we want to be producers of technology or do we want to be consumers of technology?”

There is some irony that General Fusion’s founder, Michel Laberge, earned a degree at the University of British Columbia in an area that is no longer taught there: plasma physics. The universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan are the only ones in Canada with plasma physics labs – small ones at that. In the 1990s, funding dried up for that field. If Canada wants to be a player in the fusion industry, it will need to up its academic game, because it requires scientists and engineers with very specialised skills in plasma physics and related fields, according to Allan Offenberger, professor emeritus from the University of Alberta.

“Canada is the oddball player that is not engaged, and we strategically have to get involved because when [fusion] does become the paramount energy source, by mid-century, we are going to be left totally out of the game if we haven’t got the qualified people,” he said.

“Having a national program helps us attract experienced people internationally into Canada to work in this area,” said General Fusion chief technology officer Michael Delage. “It also is important when we go to raise capital privately.

“One of the questions we get is: ‘Where is the national government?’ When you’re talking to investors in Asia and so on, they’re often stunned to find out we’re privately funded, as opposed to a national program.”

General Fusion has received some federal funding, but most of its financing to date – about C$120 million (US$90.5 million)– has come from private investors, including Chrysalix Venture Capital and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. What General Fusion needs from Canada isn’t so much direct funding as access to brainpower.

Almost all developed countries are working on fusion energy. Fusion ignition has already been demonstrated. The problem is that it still takes more energy to create an ignition than the energy produced. The race now is to demonstrate net energy gain: getting more power out than went in to create the ignition.

Fusion energy science is being done on two fronts. There are large multibillion-dollar, government-backed efforts, like the C$20 billion (US$15 billion) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, funded by the European Union, China, the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea and India.

Then there are a number of private companies, like Burnaby’s General Fusion, and Tri Alpha Energy Inc. in California, that are taking the Elon Musk approach: privately financed science projects.

It is only a matter of time before one of the projects succeeds at net energy gain, says the Fusion 2030 group, and it doesn’t matter who is the first to achieve it. Once fusion energy becomes a reality, it will give rise to a whole new industry.

“We’re headed toward what I would think of as the Wright brothers moment,” Delage said. “And when the Wright brothers were successful, there was a burgeoning of aviation companies and technologies and approaches.”

Terry Beech, the MP for Burnaby North-Seymour and parliamentary secretary for science, was noncommittal when asked if he would be lobbying for the funding the Fusion 2030 group wants, but said he has passed the Fusion 2030 strategy on to Kirsty Duncan, the minister of science.

“It’s definitely something that’s on the government’s radar,” he said. “But in terms of any decisions that we’re going to make, that’s going to be part of a larger process of prioritisation, like there is in any budget.”

Could Canadian fusion power be in play by 2030?