When Vancouver scientist Michel Laberge takes to the stage March 18 at the TED talks in Vancouver to talk about fusion energy, he may have to spend some time talking about what nuclear fusion isn't.
It's not cold fusion, for one – something Laberge and most other fusion scientists have written off as a kind of modern alchemy. And though it's a form of nuclear energy, it's not fission – the splitting of radioactive elements like uranium, which produces highly radioactive waste.
Nuclear fusion involves the fusing of atoms of lighter elements, such as heavy hydrogen – derived from sea water – under intense pressure to release large amounts of energy, but without the nuclear waste or meltdown hazards that come from fission.
Laberge and astronaut Chris Hadfield are the only Canadians on the March speakers list for TED, now hosted in Vancouver. Other speakers include Sting and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT) founder Bill Gates.
Laberge said he plans to use his upcoming TED talk to dispel some misconceptions about fusion energy, one of which is that – after decades of experimentation – it remains a scientific pipe dream.
"We're almost to the point where we can make more energy out of fusion than the energy we put in, and that's not well known," said the 52-year-old Quebec-born scientist. "I would like to say that fusion will come soon."
The question is whether his company, Burnaby-based General Fusion, will be the first to reach fusion's brass ring: net energy gain. Laberge believes his company can do a successful test proving net gain within two years and that a working fusion power plant could be built within a decade.
Laberge is in a David and Goliath race with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a $20 billion multinational effort based in France, as well as the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the U.S.
By contrast, General Fusion's budget to build a prototype reactor – about $150 million – seems meagre. The company has raised $50 million to date and now employs 65 scientists at its lab in Burnaby. Among the investors is Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos through his venture capital arm Bezos Expeditions.
"They contacted us out of the blue," Laberge said. "I did meet Jeff Bezos. He came here and visited, and we talked some."
There are different approaches to fusion energy, but the basic principle is that the fuel – a plasma of heavy hydrogen, in General Fusion's case – is compressed to the point where atoms fuse and release massive amounts of energy. ITER is using powerful superconducting magnets to accomplish this; NIF is using a complex of lasers that is three football fields in size.
Laberge believes his company has an edge because its approach is far less energy-intensive. Large pneumatic pistons arranged on the outside of a spherical plasma chamber would be fired simultaneously, and the shock waves would compress the plasma to the fusion point.
"In place of requiring very expensive lasers to compress it, we can get away with pneumatic compression, and pneumatic compression's a lot cheaper than laser," said Laberge.
Considering that it's his area of expertise, it's ironic that Laberge rejected the laser approach.
Born and raised in Quebec, Laberge did a master's degree in physics at Laval University, where he specialized in lasers and then went on a skiing tour. He fell in love with Whistler, so he ended up taking his PhD in physics, at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1985.
"I went to UBC for the skiing, yes," said Laberge, who is married with two children, aged 17 and 21. "I'm a good skier, and I still ski."
He landed a post-doctorate at L'École Polytechnique in Paris working on laser fusion, and then did another at Ottawa's Natural Resource Council.
Because he hates to write, Laberge decided against an academic career and in 1992 went to work for Creo Products, which became B.C.'s first billion-dollar high-tech company.
He spent a decade there, coming up with innovations in laser printing, as the company's senior physicist and principal engineer.
When he joined Creo, he was given shares in the company, and after it went public, Laberge's shares were worth about $300,000 – enough to fund what he calls a mid-life crisis.
"This was a sizable pile of money," Laberge said. "So here I am, at 40, a bit bored with my job, wanted to do fusion, and I had a bit of a stack of money in front of me, so I said, 'To hell with that, I'm quitting my job and I'm going to do fusion.'"
He spent several months studying all the approaches to fusion that had been tried over the years.
Despite his expertise in laser technology, he decided shock waves would be a simpler, cheaper way to achieve the intense compression that is needed.
The key problem for anyone trying to generate fusion energy is to get more energy out than goes into igniting the plasma – net energy gain. The supermagnets used by ITER in its magnetized targeted fusion process and the lasers used at NIF both require huge amounts of energy. General Fusion's approach is much less energy-intensive.
When he founded General Fusion in 2002, Laberge initially had a hard time getting investors interested, though he did land a federal Industrial Research Assistance Program grant.
"This is outrageously ambitious – a single guy wanting to do fusion," Laberge said. "That's pretty crazy."
Crazy like Tesla, perhaps. In his book, Mad Like Tesla, Tyler Hamilton compares Laberge and other innovators to Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American scientist who invented the alternating current used in the modern electrical grid and in 1901 envisioned a wireless communication system that sounded a lot like the modern cellphone.
"The reason why I included General Fusion and Michel in a chapter of that book is because I see him and other entrepreneurs that I profiled as having that vision that people [who] don't understand it might consider a little bit crazy," Hamilton said.
Vancouver based clean-tech venture capital firm Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital was the company's first private investor. Others followed, including Bezos and Cenovus Energy Inc. (TSX: CVE). The Canadian government, through Sustainable Development Technology Canada, also has invested $14 million in the company.
Laberge readily concedes there's a 50-50 chance his experiment will fail. But if he succeeds?
"I will save the world," he said, only half joking.
It's hard to overstate how important fusion could be as an energy source. It would produce no greenhouse gases or nuclear waste. Because the fuel is derived from sea water, it is abundant, and it is one million times more energy-efficient than coal.
"One kilogram of deuterium is the same as 10,000 tonnes of coal," Laberge said.
"From an environmental standpoint, it would absolutely be a game-changer," said Chrysalix managing partner Mike Sherman.
"From an energy security and economic standpoint, it would be extremely beneficial, particularly to places that have energy constraints."