‘Last energy source we’ve ever tamed’: British startup BC plant aims to harness nuclear fusion technology


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Burnaby-based General Fusion, a company backed by Jeff Bezos and Cenovus Energy Inc., has ambitions as grand as they come: It wants to harness nuclear fusion, essentially the same process that generates heat in the sun.

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But nuclear fusion is still an emerging technology that has yet to be commercialized. As the name suggests, it is the fusion of two hydrogen atoms, which produces massive energy: one pound of fusion fuel equals 10 million pounds of coal.

Unlike conventional nuclear power, which involves the fission or splitting of atoms, emerging fusion technology promises clean energy where the only emission is helium, and most importantly, no radioactive waste.

Today, after decades of largely government-funded research, the industry is in the midst of a transition to the private sector with a few dozen companies sprouting up around the world. Investors say nuclear fusion would provide a basic clean energy source, which could be replaced. on or off, to supplement renewable energies, such as wind and solar.

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Last week Chris Mowry, managing director of the Burnaby-based company, signed documents with the UK government to build a $ 400 million nuclear fusion test plant in Culham, Oxfordshire. If construction of the proposed plant, announced on June 16, starts as planned next summer, it could be the world’s first public-private nuclear fusion demonstration plant.

“This is the commercialization of fusion,” Chris Mowry, managing director of Burnaby-based General Fusion, told the Financial Post at the end of his triumphant week. “A great analogy is the commercialization of space over the past ten or twenty years, which historically was only the goal of governments.”

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Although the company remains private, Mowry acknowledged that the company has significant financing needs and would likely have access to public markets as it seeks to commercialize its technology by 2030.

Other investors include Cenovus Energy Inc., the Business Development Bank of Canada and Sustainable Development Technology Canada, while collaborators include Microsoft Corp.

But Mowry also added that government grants represent about a third of the estimated $ 300 million his company has raised since its inception in 2020, led by the Canadian government, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom and others. country.

By far, the largest nuclear fusion project is taking shape in the south of France. Known as ITER, it is the product of the combined research and funds of 35 countries with the European Union leading and India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States contributing also to a $ 23.5 billion effort to build a nuclear fusion. reactor.

Canada contributed to the project and has a memorandum of understanding to explore future cooperation.

But the project is still in the assembly phase, and should not start producing energy before 2025. In the meantime, the challenges of nuclear fusion remain formidable.

In February, the US-based National Academy of the Sciences released a report on nuclear fusion concluding that “the proper functioning of a pilot plant in the period 2035-2040 requires urgent investments from (du U.S. Department of Energy) and private industry – both to resolve remaining technical and scientific issues and to design, build and commission a pilot plant.

Dennis Whyte, a Canadian scientist who is director of the Scientific Plasma Fusion Center at MIT, said the US-based Fusion Industry Association has grown from a few companies two decades ago to more than 20, in the mid a proliferation of investor interest.

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He said General Fusion has found interesting ways to make the merger more profitable.

“The overriding consideration here is that while there is still science and innovation to come, it is not about whether it is now possible,” he said, “ it is a pivot towards: “can we make it economically viable?” “”

Scientifically, Whyte said fusion is more difficult to achieve than nuclear fission. Fusion mimics the process that takes place inside the stars and the sun and generates heat.

“It looks like a science fiction novel,” he said. “We are creating a star on earth, it is not that simple.”

Indeed, the technology developed by General Fusion seems to have been taken from the pages of a fantasy or science fiction novel.

The General Fusion website explains that pneumatic pistons surround a cylindrical wall of liquefied lithium metal and hammer until it changes shape, moving from a cylinder to a sphere. Then, hydrogen plasma is injected into the sphere, compressed and heated to over 100 million degrees Celsius.

All this effort creates steam, which powers a turbine and produces energy.

“The way to think of this is a fusion version of a diesel engine,” Mowry said. “Obviously, it’s a little more complicated, but (it’s) the basic concept. “

Of course, there is a nuclear reaction at the heart of fusion, in which two hydrogen atoms are fused together.

Unlike conventional nuclear power, which requires uranium for fuel, nuclear fusion uses isotopes of hydrogen called “deuterium” and “tritium”, which can be extracted from water. Helium is the only emission from fusion, which makes it attractive as a way to decarbonize energy.

“The beauty of fusion is that there is no radioactive waste,” Mowry said.

The company’s proposed fusion demonstration plant in the UK, near that country’s National Fusion Research Center, is said to be about 70 percent the size of a commercial nuclear fusion reactor. It will not generate electricity, but will instead serve to demonstrate the viability of its technology and could be commissioned by 2025.

Mowry said that while the science around hydrogen plasma has advanced over the past two decades, a suite of other technologies is also enabling fusion, citing things like 3D printing and digital control systems.

Currently based in Burnaby, General Fusion is seeking a new head office in Metro Vancouver to accommodate its approximately 140 workers.

It also continues to raise funds, said Mowry, who predicted the market would reach $ 1 trillion by 2030.

In Canada, nuclear power provides about 15 percent of total electricity with 19 reactors, all but one of which are based in Ontario, according to the World Nuclear Association.

But ten of those reactors are decommissioned in Ontario, so the plants can be refurbished to run for another 30 years. Nuclear power has grown in recent years even as countries like Germany and Japan move away from this technology due to the dangers associated with the use of radioactive materials at extremely high temperatures.

Whyte, the MIT scientist who works on the fusion, said he uses very little fuel – around 70 grams per day would be needed for a factory in a small town. Accordingly, he argued that it was “inherently safe”.

Artist's impression of the General Fusion demonstration plant, based in Burnaby, British Columbia, UK
Artist’s impression of the General Fusion demonstration plant, based in Burnaby, British Columbia, UK Photo by document / General fusion

“When you hear about it you say ‘oh 100 million degrees’,” he said. “But there are very few particles, so that means it’s like a pot of boiling water. It sounds strange… but if you were to blow on this thing, it will turn off on its own.

He described it as the ultimate energy, with a few wry chuckles.

“It’s probably the last source of energy we’ve ever tamed,” Whyte said. “I am thinking of the taming path of fire and it finally ends in molten, because we will have tamed the energy source of the stars.”

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