Geek Speak: Michel Laberge, plasma physicist and TED2014 speaker

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Not many people can claim that their work has the potential to almost single-handedly solve the energy crisis, lower pollution, and stave off further climate change. Indeed, Michel Laberge concedes that, if his team is successful, they’ll be credited with making perhaps the greatest scientific achievement in recent history.

A plasma physicist, Laberge is the only local speaker set to take the stage at Vancouver’s TED2014 conference in March. He’s the founder and chief scientist of General Fusion, a Burnaby-based company that’s building a prototype fusion reactor with the aim of producing nuclear energy that’s abundant, clean, and safe.

According to Laberge, the level of radiation around such a reactor will be similar to that found in a hospital. The fuel is deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that can be easily extracted from seawater.

The Georgia Straight reached Laberge by phone in Burnaby.

How does it feel to be the only local speaker slated for TED2014?

It’s a great honour for me.

What are you building at General Fusion?

We are building a prototype fusion machine that one day will make electricity for the grid.

Can you provide a short explanation of magnetized target fusion?

You need to heat a gas—which becomes a plasma, which is when the electrons in the centre of the atom go apart—to 150 million °C. That’s very hot. One way that you can do that is by compression. When you compress a gas, it gets hotter. That’s a thermodynamic effect.

What we want do is make a lukewarm gas with a magnetic field around it, because the magnetic field prevents the heat from escaping. It’s kind of like insulation. When we compress it, it’s going to get hotter. And if we compress it, then it becomes hot enough for making fusion at 150 million °C. Then there will be a flash of energy coming out of this thing. We will collect this energy and make electricity out of it.

But the key point is the compression and the magnetic field. This is why it’s called magnetized target fusion. Some people try to do it without a magnetic field—it’s called laser fusion—but in our case we want a magnetized plasma and then we compress it. That’s how magnetized target fusion works.

General Fusion is building a prototype nuclear reactor that employs magnetized target fusion.
Courtesy General Fusion

What challenges remain in the way of a reactor prototype?

Well, we are trying to build all the different components that we will use. First, we have to produce this plasma—the lukewarm one—so we have a machine that produces this plasma. We need to hit some sort of characteristic of this plasma—like there has to be some numbers that we have to hit—but we’re not quite there yet. We’re within about a factor of two, but some numbers are missing.

After that, we want to throw that in this big compressor, which is going to squash it, and that works pretty good. There are a few little things that could work better, but the compressor is in pretty good shape.

How far off are you from commercializing this?

That could take a long time. What we want to do is a prototype to demonstrate that it works. But to turn a prototype into a real power plant that you can sell and put electricity on the line—that’s going to be a heck of a lot longer. One estimate is about 10 years.

How would your fusion reactor change the world?

It would change the world big time. Right now, most of the power on the planet is done with fossil fuels. Like 80 percent of the energy on this planet is done by burning coal or oil or gas or something, and that makes CO2, which is not so good. It makes smog. On top of that it’s going to get harder and harder to find that stuff, so the price will go up.

If somebody or General Fusion manages to make a fusion power plant to make electricity—and with electricity you can also power cars and everything eventually—so slowly all the power on this planet will be converted to this very nice source of energy that doesn’t make any pollution, for example. So, it will completely change the energy situation on this planet, and it will prevent all this pollution and global warming, and it will prevent the fact that the cost of energy will go higher and higher in the future. It’s a big deal.

How are you preparing to give your TED talk?

Well, I’m a little nervous about this. Right now, we’re writing the talk. I’m practising it a little bit. We’re trying to produce a couple of little pictures that will show up on the back. I have a quite a bit of time to do that, so I will practise and practise until I’m good. Then I’ll go and give my talk, and hopefully I won’t look too stupid.

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