Energy Tech Talk
Let’s Talk Energy with… Doug Richardson, General Fusion
Fusion holds the key to unlimited clean energy—and Burnaby’s General Fusion is close to a breakthrough. We spoke with CEO Doug Richardson about how his magnetized target fusion technology could provide a more affordable, practical path to fusion power—and fundamentally change the world’s energy supply.
Nuclear fusion is pretty complex. How exactly does it work?
DR: Fusion is the process that powers the sun. It occurs when atoms are heated to very high temperatures, allowing them to collide and fuse, and releasing a significant amount of energy. We’re trying to harness that power by creating ‘mini-suns’ here on Earth.
Basically, when you compress a blob of plasma (ionized gas), two things happen: it gets hotter and denser. If you can hold the plasma together long enough it will burn and, in the process, release more energy than it took to heat it up. You can then use that excess energy, in the form of heat, to drive steam turbines and other generators to produce clean electricity.
While most fusion work is done more like a science experiment, we’re focused on commercialization—we’re not only trying to achieve fusion but do it in a way that is practical and cost-effective so that the whole world can benefit.
An array of pistons impact and drive a pressure wave into the centre of the reactor, compressing the magnetically confined plasma to fusion conditions.
Why is it so important to unlock fusion power?
DR: About 85 percent of the planet’s power currently comes from the burning of fossil fuels—and we all agree those are in limited supply. With fusion, however, the main isotopes that make up the plasma, deuterium and tritium, can be easily extracted from the ocean—and there’s enough fuel in our seawater to power the planet for billions of years. Also, the fusion process doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases, meaning we can produce clean, abundant energy without any harm to the environment.
If we’re successful, this will be equivalent to the Wright Brothers’ first flight: a scientific milestone that will change the world forever.
What are the other benefits of the technology?
DR: Issues of poverty and quality of life are often directly related to energy access. If you don’t have oil or natural gas available, you need to import your energy at huge financial and environmental costs. But with fusion, the fuel is readily abundant—making energy cheaper and more widely distributed, which will help raise the standard of living across the globe.
What has been your biggest challenge?
DR: Fusion is hard! Figuring out exactly how plasma behaves (and misbehaves) when it’s compressed, that’s been harder than anticipated. But we’re getting there. Also, because very few private enterprises are working on fusion, raising money has been difficult—people just don’t believe fusion can be done. Fortunately, the support we’ve received from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) has been fantastic.
General Fusion’s original prototype is displayed at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.
In its next phase of development, General Fusion will construct a full-scale prototype to test whether the compressed plasma behaves as expected—and if it can achieve the conditions required for fusion. The results will answer many of the questions surrounding the project and, ideally, clear the path toward commercialization.
“Although people have been working on fusion for 60 years, that nut hasn’t really been cracked yet,” says Richardson. “We know fusion is possible. Canada is leading the way with a serious, scientific effort to make it a reality—and we truly believe that Wright Brothers moment could happen within the next year or two.”