Two desktop-printer engineers quit their jobs to search for the ultimate source of endless energy: nuclear fusion. Could this highly improbable enterprise actually succeed?
"Basically, they quit their jobs to answer one of the most complicated problems in physics," says Mike Brown, whose venture-capital fund, Chrysalix, allowed General Fusion to get to its so-far very callow state. Brown's fund has concentrated on alternative energy for years. He was the first investor in Ballard, a Canadian company that helped perfect the fuel cell. And even now, at age 69, he cares not so much because of the money, though the potential there is obviously significant, but because of what fusion would mean for a planet in rapid decline.
At an age when most successful businessmen would be retired, Brown is more enthusiastic than ever. "I think it took someone with exceptional talent to do this combination of mechanics and physics, which is really unusual," he says of Laberge (whom he tells me was also once a high-speed downhill skateboarder and a member of Canada's national hang-gliding team). "Europe is particularly ITER-focused. It's as if [MTF] never existed. But when you bring in experts -- not a single expert hasn't said, you know, you guys have a real shot of doing this."
Ronald Kirkpatrick, a guest scientist at Los Alamos and someone who has spent much of his career contributing to the American fusion program with a particular emphasis in MTF, was one of the handful of independent scientists who vetted General Fusion's plan. And although he's not ready to say it will work, he certainly thinks it could. "I see no problems in principle, but I do see a lot of technical challenges ahead," he says. Among them: the potential for instability between the plasma and the lead-lithium liner, which could cool the plasma and prevent it from reaching fusion temperatures. "It's worth pursuing, but investors have to know it's a high-risk affair."
Richard Siemon hasn't studied General Fusion's plan but knows enough about MTF to say that he's more optimistic about it than any of the tokamak projects. "MTF in particular has the potential to be an approach that could be done on a small scale by a small group," he says. "I think it's an exciting thing. And there's an efficiency to the private sector that just isn't comparable to government-funded approaches."
Given another round of financing -- roughly $10 million, $7 million or so of which has been procured -- Laberge says he will build two dozen of those unassuming pistons and use them to impact a cylinder full of liquid lead-lithium. This will allow him and his team to study the shock waves as well as the synchronization of the pistons. That's two years. A third, $50-million influx of capital, Brown says, gets them a test reactor. "By the end of 2012, we'll have done net gain." ITER will still be six years away. "Nobody will have done net gain at that point. If we do that, we'll attract a significant amount of attention." After that comes the first power plant. That will cost another $200 million to $500 million, but after net gain, the money should be easy to raise.
"If the world is waiting for energy from ITER, it's a lost cause," Brown says. "I think sooner or later it could work. But it's going to be later, and it's going to take a lot of money. If we could do for $500 million what they'll do for $50 billion -- in six years versus by 2035. For electricity!" There's no need, really, to complete the thought.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.