The power of fusion: an interview with General Fusion’s Jay Brister
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
It’s been an exciting summer for Vancouver-based General Fusion. In June, the company announced plans to build their first demonstration plant in the UK, which will demonstrate their technology at a power plant scale. And in July, they launched a new research partnership with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) to develop tritium extraction techniques for use in commercial fusion power plants.
General Fusion is a global leader in fusion development, with a proprietary design approach (known as Magnetized Target Fusion, or MTF) that holds great promise to deliver on the potential of commercial fusion energy. Leading investors have taken notice, including billionaire Jeff Bezos, and Canada’s own Strategic Innovation Fund.
General Fusion also happens to be a founding steering committee member of NII's Bruce Power Centre for Next Generation Nuclear. So I recently sat down with Jay Brister, the company's Chief Business Development Officer, to learn more about their recent announcements and what’s next for fusion in Canada.
But first, let’s take a minute for a reminder—what exactly is fusion?
Fusion: an unparalleled energy source
Fusion occurs when atoms (usually hydrogen) are compressed and heated to extremely high temperatures. At these temperatures, atoms collide with one another at such high velocity that they can fuse together to create a larger atom.
This is the process that powers the sun and stars, and it results in tremendous amounts of energy. In fact, fusion releases 3-4 times more energy than fission, the process that powers traditional nuclear power plants.
Not only is fusion incredibly energy dense, but it also does not produce any carbon emissions, nor does it create any long-lived radioactive waste.
And all the isotopes needed for fusion can be found in simple seawater or derived from lithium, a common metal. This means it holds remarkable promise as a potential solution for climate change, and for providing humanity’s future energy needs.
One kilogram of fusion fuel can power 10,000 homes for one year and replace 55,000 barrels of oil, six million kg of natural gas, or 10 million kg of coal.
Fusion has been studied since the 1940s and is well understood by the scientific community. The longstanding challenge has been that it required more power to operate fusion reactors than was produced as an output. But with recent innovations from companies like General Fusion, significant advancements to this technology are setting a course to make fusion commercially viable sooner rather than later.
Read the full interview, below, or watch the highlights in the videos, throughout.
An interview with Jay Brister, General Fusion:
SH: What excites you most about fusion?
JB: Fusion energy has the promise to just fundamentally transform the energy landscape as we know it. I mean, it's a real game changer. It's going to play a very, very significant role in a clean energy future.
It’s not only about decarbonization either, because millions of people in the world live today without electricity. Fusion offers global access to energy with no geographic constraints, and minimal land requirements—and actually because of the safety of the technology, being able to be placed right near the demand.
Having a chance to create a global solution to a global problem, it's a little jolt every morning to get me out of bed. It's a great thing to have the opportunity to work on every day.
SH: Some say fusion technology is still 30 years away from being mainstream. What do you think? Is it, and if not, what’s different now?
JB: This is a real common misconception about fusion energy. It's not 30 years away, fusion is today. We're building on a foundation of 70 years of scientific research into fusion energy.
We're actually moving things forward at a different rate to advance fusion—to make that statement “fusion is today” a fact—by doing three things:
First is really the advancement of fusion science. Our advancements in plasma physics and advanced simulation codes have experimentally confirmed fusion theory. We are furthering the depth of knowledge that we have around fusion science.
We couple that secondly with what we call maturing enabling technologies. So things like advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, advancements in computers, big data analytics, and then computational power to actually be able to control digital systems.
And the other magic ingredient that comes in to help us progress is investment. There has been a tremendous amount of investment over the last 20 years into private fusion ventures. But the rate of that investment is what's changing.
From the turn of the century until 2018, it took 18 years to get to the point where a billion dollars had been privately invested into private fusion ventures. And from 2018, until today, we've actually seen almost another billion dollars come into these companies to help advance our technology.
SH: What role do you think fusion will play in tackling climate change?
JB: We've got to reduce our carbon emissions by a hundred percent between now and 2050. The other side of that coin is we see global energy demand going up by 200% in the same period.
By taking fusion energy and coupling it with these other clean energy resources today, it will allow us to reach a point in the future where we can achieve a net-zero, decarbonized solution. Fusion complements the intermittency of some of these other sources to provide a balanced portfolio, to give us a clean energy solution.
SH: Recently, General Fusion announced plans to construct a new facility in the UK. What does this project mean for General Fusion and for the future?
JB: The Fusion Demonstration Plant is the culmination of more than a decade of advancements in General Fusion's technology. It puts us at achieving a major milestone on our path to commercialization.
Our Fusion Demonstration Plant does two key things for us. Number one, it's going to confirm the performance of our Magnetized Target Fusion technology at a power plant relevant scale.
And it will also help us refine the economics of our upcoming commercial power plant through the operations of this particular machine. So both the advances in science and insights into economics help us provide a better solution as we go forward.
And the partnership with the UKAEA [United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority] is a critical component in allowing this to go forward. It's a fantastic fusion research centre and it helps us actually achieve our delivery goals of being operational by the early 2030s.
SH: Why did General Fusion decide to build in the UK?
Jay: Well, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at the Culham campus is a world-class fusion research facility.
And on top of that, it's one of the few places on the planet that actually has a fusion supply chain, not to mention the intellectual capital that's there. So being able to tap into a resource like that and partner with UKAEA to deliver this, we see as enabling our fastest path to commercialization.
Another very, very critical aspect of this relationship is that it’s a public-private partnership. It's really the first public-private partnership in the fusion space that’s supporting the delivery of a power plant-scale fusion technology. It’s a strategic combination of government and private industry, which act as an accelerator in taking technologies to market.
SH: What can we do in Canada to advance fusion?
JB: Canada has just been incredibly supportive to General Fusion. Canada is very committed to being a global leader in developing clean technology and they're demonstrating that.
For example, their support of us through the Strategic Innovation Fund is allowing us to move our commercialization strategy forward. And our partnership in the UKAEA coincides with what we're doing here in Vancouver —which is that we’re going to be expanding.
We're also taking advantage of other Canadian programs like the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. We received a grant that allowed us to partner with McGill University to do some really important research that looks at the integration of our compression and plasma systems.
We’ve also made an announcement that we will be working with Canadian Nuclear Labs, doing some analysis on tritium extraction techniques, and that's going to be directly applicable to commercial fusion power plants.
SH: What are some of the challenges that prevent fusion from being adopted here in Canada?
JB: We also need a regulatory framework for fusion technology. It just doesn't exist around the world today. So we will work with the CNSC, and hopefully others, to establish a regulatory framework that's going to be risk informed that will pave the way for the deployment of fusion technology in Canada.
Innovations in fusion mean that it could soon be used as a carbon free source of energy used to decarbonize the electrical grid.
Increased public awareness and private/public sector investment are needed to support fusion technology on its path to commercialization.
By leveraging our tier-one nuclear industry, Canada is well positioned to show global leadership in the development and deployment of clean fusion technology.
Written by Susie Ho, former Senior Advisor at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.