• 07.31.09

How to Build a Nuclear Fusion Device on the Cheap

Europe’s ITER project is blowing $14 billion on the creation of a nuclear fusion power plant, but the bloated project might be outrun by General Fusion, a Vancouver, Canada startup that claims it can build a prototype plant in under a decade for $500 million–pocket change in nuclear fusion terms.


ITER’s project, which won’t be ready for nearly 30 years, is so expensive because it uses pricey superconducting magnets (tokamaks) and lasers to contain plasma for a fusion reaction. General Fusion takes a different tactic: the company plans to create a fusion reaction that gives off more energy than is required to sustain it by using low-tech brute force.


More specifically, General Fusion plans to make a metal sphere reactor that spins a liquid mixture of lithium and lead to create a vortex inside the sphere. Two spheromaks, or plasma rings kept together by a self-contained magnetic field, are injected into the sphere to create a target. At the same time, 220 pistons hit the outside surface of the sphere to create a shock wave that hits the plasma, compresses it, fuses the isotopes into helium, and releases energy-filled neutrons captured by the liquid mixture. The energy is extracted from the liquid with a heat exchanger to create steam to spin a power-generating turbine and to continue to run the reactor.

It sounds good on paper, but General Fusion has yet to develop 3-D simulations or build a test reactor. If the company can raise another $37 million, it hopes to have a prototype reactor ready in five years. With $500 million more in funding, the company will have a grid-ready reactor four years after that. These are a lot of “ifs”, and we probably won’t know the fate of General Fusion for at least half a decade. But if it does succeed, the startup could bring the sky-high price of nuclear fusion–the holy grail of energy–back down to earth.

[Via MIT Technology Review]

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.