By Susanne Martin, Managing Editor
Firing up Canada’s potential
While the modest store-front in a small industrial park in Burnaby, British Columbia, doesn’t exactly match the expectations that come with a name like “General Fusion,” the array of hardware – and software – behind the façade looks impressive.
Here, a little startup is studying magnetized target fusion (MTF) – a hybrid between magnetic fusion and inertial confinement fusion – and at the same time building the systems to create it.
“We’re essentially trying to bridge this gap between research and private-sector innovation.”
Gilles Patry is president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation
The goal is to devise a method for creating fusion that is suitable and cost effective for power plant application, explains Michel Laberge, General Fusion’s founder and chief scientist.
Although it has potential for being an extremely efficient and clean power source, fusion is very difficult to create, says Dr. Laberge, adding that finding support and funding for it was perhaps equally or more challenging. While he found “Canada a little bit less gung ho about starting new things,” he believes receptiveness to innovation is showing signs of improvement.
Dr. Laberge’s pursuit of MTF was spawned during a mid-life crisis. At age 40, he decided to direct his interest to a subject he had explored earlier – albeit in a different aspect – in a PhD thesis. Turning his back on a well-paying job, he tinkered in his garage, building a “small machine” to create fusion.
With a PowerPoint presentation documenting the success of his model, Dr. Laberge then went to find funds for replicating the system on a larger scale.
“I felt people were wondering how a little company could achieve something that those big research programs are still working on,” he says.
While he calls the budget of $50-million he managed to secure “peanuts” compared to what big fusion projects – like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, a $23-billion (U.S.) facility – rely on, Dr. Laberge sees advantages to his approach.
“As a small young company, we are a bit more keen and enthusiastic,” he says, adding that his team is made up of 65 employees: a dozen physics researchers, 30 engineers and the rest administration staff.
It also helps that General Fusion is not working in isolation. “We collaborate with fusion researchers worldwide – some are quite enthusiastic about our approach,” says Dr. Laberge.
There is an increasingly multinational aspect to research, says Gilles Patry, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). “Research right now is global; and research is very competitive,” he says. “Collaborative, yes, but also competitive.”
For this reason, he believes it’s important that researchers have access to cutting-edge facilities that can give them a competitive advantage when they try to address issues or challenges that may have direct benefits to society.
“When it comes to research, Canada really punches above its weight class,” Dr. Patry explains, citing a Council of Canadian Academies report that shows that with 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada produces almost 5 per cent of the globally most highly cited papers.
While this puts Canada on the right track in terms of research, Dr. Patry sees “a gap in the continuity between knowledge generation and wealth creation, and/or innovation, i.e. taking those ideas and ensuring that we translate them into benefits for Canadians through social innovation, technological innovation and so on.”
In order to promote research and industry partnerships, the CFI recently launched a website – the CFI Research Facilities Navigator – that lists over 400 research facilities that are “open for business,” says Dr. Patry. “We’re essentially trying to bridge this gap between research and private-sector innovation.”
Wendy Cukier, Ryerson University’s vice-president of research and innovation, notes that if technologies do not find markets, they can’t be called innovations.
“Innovation occurs when a new product, service or process is actually adopted and drives change,” she says. “There is no lack of great ideas. We need to accelerate the commercialization and adoption of technologies to drive global competitiveness.”
Dr. Cukier believes research on the drivers and impediments to adoption is critical. “We partner right from the outset with users, suppliers, governments and community organizations to understand needs. It’s a multidisciplinary challenge. For example, social sciences and humanities provide a critical understanding of organizational issues, the user experience, context and content,” she says.
“Ryerson has committed to driving an understanding of entrepreneurship, innovation and change-making across all disciplines, boosting the university’s global reputation as innovator,” says Dr. Cukier, adding that the university’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ), for example, was ranked highest among Canadian universities and fifth in the world by the University Business Incubator (UBI) Index, a Swedish research initiative that reviews more than 300 university-affiliated business incubators in 67 countries.
Dr. Laberge says he explored many avenues for pursuing General Fusion’s goal to generate clean power, but soon realized that partnering with private investors was the only viable option.
“Fusion is a bit more extravagant – it’s a fairly long-term process and investors need to realize that,” he explains, adding that speed still matters, especially since the bulk of General Fusion’s budget – other than Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) and Science and Technology Development Canada (STDC) funding – comes from private sources that want to see results.
Dr. Laberge’s team is currently refining the MTF process to prove that the General Fusion subsystems work. Once this is accomplished, they’ll construct a full-scale prototype system.
While Dr. Laberge puts his chances for success at 100 per cent, he adds a caveat: “I am sure we will succeed eventually, but the problem is that our investors might get impatient. If we don’t succeed quite fast, there are chances we run out of money.”
Yet he seems undaunted, reassured, perhaps, that his reasons for creating fusions are sound. “Number one, to save the planet; two, because it’s exciting,” he says.
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