Monday, May 25, 2015

Three Small Fusion Companies Approaching a Critical Funding Mass

          By Brian Orlotti

Over the past week, three small companies working to commercialize alternative forms of fusion power have received significant new funding from both government and private sources. This influx of funding will allow these innovative firms to press forward with this world-changing technology.

Michel Laberge, from General Fusion discusses the prototype fusion reactor his team is working on during a presentation at TED 2014. To see full presentation please click on this link. Video c/o TED 2014.

According to a May 19th, 2015 BC Business article, "Malaysia takes a $27-million liking to BC's General Fusion," Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund, the Khazanah Nasional Berhad, has announced a $27Mln CDN investment in General Fusion of Burnaby, BC.

The Malaysian group joins existing investors in General Fusion including Cenovus Energy, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Bezos Expeditions (the personal venture capital fund of founder Jeff Bezos).

The funds will go towards commercializing the company's magnetized target fusion (MTF) technology. In MTF, a metal sphere filled with molten lead-lithium is filled with hydrogen gas heated until it becomes a plasma, which is then compressed by shock waves made from 300 computer-controlled pistons striking the outer wall of the sphere, triggering nuclear fusion.

General Fusion has raised over $100Mln CDN to date and plans to begin building a full scale prototype in 2017.

On May 15th, the US Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced it was providing $60Mln USD ($72 Mln CDN) in funding for various energy-related projects. One of the recipients is Seattle, WA based Helion Energy. Another company researching the same area, Middlesex, NJ based LPP Fusion, has also received $200,000 USD ($246,000 CDN) in funds from the Baltimore, MD-based Abell Foundation.

Helion Energy, which also received $3.9 million USD ($4.8Mln CDN) from ARPA-E and smaller amounts from start-up funder Y-Combinator and Mithrel, is developing a technology called magneto-inertial fusion (MIF). MIF uses magnetic fields to both heat and compress a plasma, triggering nuclear fusion and researchers claim to be able to generate fusion in a far smaller device than traditional tokamak-based fusion reactors.

In contrast to other companies' approaches, Helion's MIF uses the isotope Helium-3 as a fuel. Though rare on Earth, extensive deposits of HE-3 are located on the Moon. Helion has not made it clear whether it intends to relay on Earth He3 supplies or if Moon-based He3 is at all part of their efforts.

New Jersey-based Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP), is a group founded by plasma researcher Dr. Eric Lerner. LPP attracted global attention last year by running a high profile and successful Indiegogo campaign, which raised over $180,000 USD ($222,000 CDN) over two months. On May 21st , LPP announced that is was receiving an additional $200,000 USD ($246,000 CDN) from the Baltimore, MD-based Abell Foundation.

LPP's efforts are centred around a device called the dense plasma focus (aka "focus fusion"). The dense plasma focus device consists of two cylindrical metal electrodes nested inside each other. The electrodes are enclosed in a vacuum chamber with a low pressure gas filling the space between them.

A pulse of electricity from a capacitor bank is discharged across the electrodes. For a few millionths of a second, an intense current flows from the outer to the inner electrode through the gas. This current starts to heat the gas and creates an intense magnetic field. Guided by its own magnetic field, the current forms itself into a thin sheath of tiny filaments; little whirlwinds of hot, electrically-conducting gas called plasma. This sheath travels to the end of the inner electrode where the magnetic fields produced by the currents pinch and twist the plasma into a tiny, dense ball only a few thousandths of an inch across called a plasmoid. The magnetic fields very quickly collapse, and these changing magnetic fields induce an electric field which causes a beam of electrons to flow in one direction and a beam of ions – atoms that have lost electrons-  in the other. The electron beam heats the plasmoid to extremely high temperatures (equivalent to billions of degrees C), triggering nuclear fusion.

Brian Orlotti.
After decades of research and frustration at the slow progress in the fusion field, the private sector is supporting more unorthodox methods which stand a good chance of success in the near future.

Government labs have shown that fusion power is possible. The private sector is now racing to make it efficient.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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