Nuclear fusion is pretty much the Holy Grail in the global energy game. If fusion can be achieved and sustained it would offer a clean, cost-effective alternative to the potentially dangerous fission systems that have been in operation around the world for the past 50 years or so. The pay-off for whoever gets there first will be massive: a place in the history books, wealth beyond measure, a Nobel and some serious, serious bragging rights. Over the years various scientists have tried and invariably failed to achieve a sustained fusion reaction — so fusion claims should usually be taken with a pinch of salt.
In late 2008 Canada’s General Fusion reported that they were three to four years away from proving that fusion was possible. Now it is early 2011, time for them to live up to their promises or admit defeat. It seems they will not be doing the latter — at least not just yet. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos may or may not be convinced that they can deliver on their promise, but he has been curious enough to throw them $19.5 million.
General Fusion’s line of research has been into Magnetized Target Fusion. PopSci provides a fantastically simple explanation of the process:
General Fusion is pursuing what is called Magnetized Target Fusion. In a few words, this technique essentially uses a magnetic field and plasma to break lithium down into helium and tritium, which is then separated and mixed with deuterium, which then fuses into helium (that’s a wild oversimplification, in case you were wondering).
That fusion of tritium and deuterium–both forms of hydrogen–into helium releases a huge burst of energy, which can be harvested into electricity. So where you’ve basically started with cheap and plentiful lithium, you end up with a massive amount of energy and harmless gas as a byproduct–no radioactive mess to clean up (or ceaselessly worry about).
Make no mistake, if General Fusion makes any sort of announcement it will be a proof of concept — if it works it will take a long, long time and a lot of money to turn their research into a working power plant — but the possibility is exciting.
As for Jeff Bezos’ involvement, it is probably dangerous to read too much into it. He is a billionaire and $19.5 million is a drop in the ocean to him. Granted he has made some smart decisions as a venture capitalist, but there are no doubt a few failed ventures in there as well. Bezos might have seen something that he convinced him, or he might have seen enough to convince him that General Fusion was worth a $19.5 million gamble.