General Fusion Harnesses the Power of the Stars
May 20, 2015
Commercial nuclear fusion or “fusion energy” is a long-standing goal in the energy business. Essentially the same force that powers the stars, it promises clean, safe and almost limitless energy. Yet harnessing it on Earth is highly challenging, both from a technical and from a commercial standpoint. Over the course of the last few decades, government and private industry have been steadily overcoming these challenges to the point that we are very close now to having the ultimate energy source commercially viable.
General Fusion, of Burnaby, British Columbia, is one of the private companies at the very forefront of these advances. With investments from high profile sources, including Jeff Bezos, oil and gas giant Cenovus and others, as well as being prominently featured in highly respected business and science journals, General Fusion has a bright future for nuclear fusion technology.
Brian Cotton caught up with General Fusion’s CEO, Nathan Gilliland, to chat about a company that is working to tame the power of the stars.
On the future of fusion, his company, how they are addressing the challenges of commercially viable fusion energy
Brian Cotton (BC): The conventional wisdom about nuclear fusion is that it has some good potential benefits, including low fuel cost, minimal waste and a very high degree of safety. How do you see the impact of fusion energy on the world?
Nathan Gilliland (NG): This promise, it’s at the heart of why we are all pursuing this endeavour. Fusion has the promise to change the energy landscape…forever. It can provide abundant, emission-free and safe power. There is no long-lived radioactive waste and there are no emissions other than heat and energy. And, the fuel cost is very low, because the hydrogen fuel in a fusion reaction is very energy dense. One kilogram of fuel, hydrogen, has the same energy as 10 million kilograms of coal. The benefits to humanity can be enormous.
BC: Our research suggests that nuclear power will remain an important element in the global fuel mix. By 2030, it may grow in global installed capacity by 65%. That’s a lot of opportunity for nuclear, but where do you see General Fusion’s place in all that opportunity?
NG: The world is hungry for safe, low cost energy. General Fusion is set up to effectively commercialize fusion energy, though certainly some major challenges remain. The large government efforts have more or less proven fusion can be done, what’s needed is to make the economics work, to make fusion commercially viable. That’s where we come in. Our reactor is extremely practical. It’s sophisticated, but it isn’t nearly as expensive as some of the other technologies that other fusion reactors use, such as very high powered lasers or superconducting magnets. That goes a long way to make the economics work, and I think that our solution over the long-run will help fusion overtake coal as the dominant way of producing electricity.
BC: Fusion technology has major challenges that scientists have been struggling to overcome. It remains unproven at a commercial scale and the investment required to get there is high. What kinds of technology challenges does your team have to overcome on the road to delivering a working prototype?
NG: The question for fusion is not “can you do it” but “how do you do it economically…so you can get more energy out than you put in”. This is “net gain” and how you do it economically is a big question. Our solution, our reactor, is set up well economically, but there are challenges. There are four key systems to make the reactor function. In our reactor, two of these systems are complete and operational. One of them is very close to being done. And the final one is still quite challenging and work is left to be done. That’s the plasma compression system, and that’s where a lot of our scientific challenges and focus are now - solving that final system. We’re confident that we will solve this one, but it isn’t easy.
On how the financial community is reacting to General Fusion
BC: Sometimes, great ideas are difficult to articulate. When you’re talking about your vision for fusion energy, and for General Fusion itself, how are you conveying that vision to external stakeholders such as investors?
NG: I typically discuss five key points: 1. The benefits of fusion, and the fact that you can create abundant, safe energy, forever. 2. Commercial fusion is getting closer and closer to reality, and the industry is really maturing, it’s coming into its own. 3. We view ourselves [General Fusion] as the most commercially-minded of all approaches to fusion. 4. We’re the leader in a way of doing fusion, called magnetized target fusion, that has a lot of support and partners, so we’re not alone and don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And the last one is that we’re working hard to engage outside expertise through broad “open innovation” projects, opening up our work and progress, and bringing the best talent we can find to the table.
BC: You have received some substantial financing. That’s certainly a validation of General Fusion’s concept. What are the key aspects of General Fusion’s vision and technology that your stakeholders and backers embrace?
NG: Practicality. We don’t think of ourselves as a science project, we look at ourselves as a business that’s creating an economically viable pathway to fusion energy – it’s hard to overstate how big an opportunity that represents. But we are also realistic. We’re cognizant of how hard this is, and we’re pretty open about the risk profile.
On what helps make General Fusion a great company
BC: There’s still a lot of work to be done to finally realize that vision of a viable fusion reactor. How do you maintain momentum to keep General Fusion tracking toward delivering this goal?
NG: There are a couple of ways. We are making real technical progress, which keeps people pretty motivated. Progress tends to come in fits and starts, but when we do have victories we celebrate them. We have 60 employees and every one of them believes in the vision and the mission, and understands that when we get to the point where we have commercial fusion, it will forever change the way the human race creates energy. Being a part of that is pretty motivating to our people: we’re a real mission driven company.
BC: The success of innovative companies is often tied to the ecosystem of people, universities, funding sources and companies that are near to them. Vancouver and its surrounding communities are a hotbed of technology innovation. What is it about the Vancouver area that’s critical to General Fusion’s success?
NG: Being in the Vancouver area has been critical to our success, for a couple of reasons. There is a history of innovation in the city. Think about Creo, MDA, Ballard, or Xantrex, all of these have produced cutting edge technology. The employees of those companies spread out over the other companies that are producing innovation in the area. They bring that willingness to do something hard, and the belief that it can be done, to companies like ours. Then there’s UBC [the University of British Columbia], there’s a great amount of really important research that’s being done there. And we have co-op students from UBC, year around, that work with us. And, I think that it’s easier to attract world class talent because Vancouver is a world class city. So it’s all of this, you’ve got a labour force that’s willing to take risks, you’ve got a community in the venture capital space that’s willing to take risks, and all this creates the innovation hub around Vancouver.
The Last Word from Nathan
Fusion is happening. General Fusion is the practical, commercially minded approach to get us there. We’re proud to be a B.C. based company. Finally, the mission of creating fusion for humanity is quite significant and it has the opportunity to change the world forever. This is what gets us up in the morning, to always try harder to achieve this goal.
Nathan Gilliland was appointed CEO of General Fusion in early 2014. Prior to General Fusion, he was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a leading venture capital firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. From 2008 until the end of 2012, Nathan was President and co-founder of Harvest Power, a renewable energy company that turns organic waste into natural gas and electricity. Prior to Harvest Power, Nathan was an investor at Bain Capital for 9 years, focusing on both leveraged buyouts and debt securities including energy investments. He was a founder of internet start-up MyCounsel.com and started his career at Bain and Company, after graduating from the University of California-Berkeley.
Brian Cotton is a Partner and Vice President at Frost & Sullivan.