General Fusion, a fusion reactor developer based in Burnaby, B.C., is one of several companies profiled for the cover feature of the November 2 issue of Time magazine, written by Lev Grossman, focusing on fusion energy with the headline “Unlimited Energy. For everyone. Forever. Fusion: It Might Actually Work This Time”.
As the old joke goes, “Fusion, it’s always 20 years in the future.”
People who’ve followed the saga of fusion energy as a savior technology that’s going to replace fossil fuels tend to find themselves on very dodgy websites that have the tonal feeling of conspiracy theory hobbyists, the anti-vaxxer movement, or people who feel like the world is controlled by Big Pharma or Big Something-Or-Other.
With the advent of General Fusion and companies like it, though, there is a feeling that things might actually be different this time, and the Time cover story lends a bit of legitimacy to the idea that fusion energy now holds more promise than putting faith in some Italian crackpot boiling water for tea from a box attached to some wires in an undisclosed location near his backyard.
The first thing that’s mentioned about General Fusion founder Michel Laberge is his sense of humour, as he self-deprecatingly tells the Time reporter, “I decided to start a fusion company. Which is pretty insane, but that’s what I went for. I guess, go big in life.”
The article outlines the general history of fusion, with its origins in Soviet-era tokamak reactors, and eventual consolidation in massive projects like the reactor at the National Ignition Facility near San Francisco, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division, and ITER, the massive $20 billion facility buried beneath the French countryside and slated to deliver results in 2027.
Parallel to these industrial efforts, startups like General Fusion have been bringing the lean philosophy to one of physics’ more intractable problems, with investors like Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Goldman Sachs putting money into it.
Founded in 2002, General Fusion has so far attracted over $100 million in investment.
Back in May, General Fusion announced a $27 million fundraising round led by the Government of Malaysia’s investment fund Khazanah Nasional Berhad.
For all that investment in fusion, though, scientific mystery still surrounds the process, with no assurance of success and a great deal of skepticism that the process is even physically possible, never mind at a scale enough to power cities.
As Laberge tells Time magazine, “It’s like learning to run before you can walk. Or somebody told me it’s like learning to fly before you can walk. You can argue that General Fusion is outrageously ambitious trying to do fusion, but Tri Alpha is outrageously outrageously ambitious,” referring to one of the better funded private fusion companies in the United States, Tri Alpha of Orange County.
As far-fetched as fusion energy has seemed to anyone who has followed its troubled history, recent developments at least mean that serious effort is being put into determining whether fusion has a shot at producing energy or not.
Until then, it’s 20 years away.