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?
On the afternoon of my visit, Doug Richardson leads us out the back of General Fusion's offices and through some trash-strewn woods to a Subway sandwich shop. While we're there, he points to a newspaper headline about fuel prices. "Every day it's the same thing: cost of fuel and climate change," he says. "I think a revolution is coming. I believe it'll be for conservation of resources."
Back at the office, Richardson shows me a climate-change mug someone gave him. When you add hot water, the places that will someday be submerged by ocean water if Greenland's ice cap melts turn blue. Farewell New York, London, Paris, Vancouver and the entire Amazon basin. Outside the door, Laberge is updating the company's Web site, and the team's plasma specialist, a young postgrad named Stephen Howard, is tinkering with the design of the plasma injector that they are right now trying to decide if they can afford. Richardson shows me chart after chart on energy demand, as well as existing technology that backs up almost everything they're building or plan to build. The global demand for power, he points out, is nearly 4,000 gigawatts today. According to projections, it will be 7,000 by 2030. The world can't possibly meet that number using existing sources.
Does General Fusion really have a chance of filling that gap? There is the way Glen Wurden sees things -- that the idea is plausible but that the implementation will require far more work, not because of technology but money: "Imagine it's 1910 and you want to fly a 747, and someone gave you the plans. You're screwed. You don't have the materials. You don't even know what a jet engine is. You're stuck. Having ITER work is like the Wright brothers. Having a fusion power plant -- it's like having a 747."
Richardson, not knowing what Wurden had told me, spun the 747 example a very different way. Flight went from paper and wood to the 747 in 65 or so years. Laberge adds that nuclear fission went from proof-of-concept to power plant in a decade. And that was the 1940s. The difference, of course, was money. "If we were proposing some funky new microbe or algae to go down and eat oil in tar sands or something and then burp it up later?" Richardson scoffs, "I'm sure we would have been financed by now. Even though it's probably a more difficult task than what we're proposing."
Sitting around twiddling your thumbs when you could be building your experimental fusion reactor can make you bitter. And to step into that room and talk to slightly bitter -- or rather, frustrated -- scientists, it's easy to read them as crackpots. Guys in rumpled khakis sitting in an office-park warehouse monkeying around with a piston hooked up to extension cords can easily look like crackpots. But as Kirkpatrick points out, compared with ITER or any other current fusion experiment, "the closest to a potential reactor scheme is what General Fusion is proposing."
"People" -- in particular, politicians and moneymen -- "have to get used to the idea that maybe this is possible," Laberge says. How could they fail? Well, they could run out of money. Or "the laws of physics might fight back in ways we don't know about yet," Brown says, smiling. "We have to find that out."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.