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Michel Laberge: How synchronized hammer strikes could generate nuclear fusion

March 20, 2014

Our energy future depends on nuclear fusion, says Michel Laberge. The plasma physicist runs a small company with a big idea for a new type of nuclear reactor that could produce clean, cheap energy. His secret recipe? High speeds, scorching temperatures and crushing pressure. In this hopeful talk, he explains how nuclear fusion might be just around the corner.

Michel Laberge - Plasma physicist
In a lab near Vancouver, Michel Laberge and his team at General Fusion are building a prototype fusion reactor that mimics the processes of the sun to produce cheap, clean and abundant energy. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Wow, this is bright.
00:12
It must use a lot of power.
00:14
Well, flying you all in here
00:17
must have cost a bit of energy too.
00:19
So the whole planet needs a lot of energy,
00:21
and so far we've been running mostly on fossil fuel.
00:24
We've been burning gas.
00:27
It's been a good run.
00:29
It got us to where we are, but we have to stop.
00:31
We can't do that anymore.
00:33
So we are trying different types of energy now,
00:36
alternative energy,
00:38
but it proved quite difficult to find something
00:39
that's as convenient and as cost-effective
00:42
as oil, gas and coal.
00:44
My personal favorite is nuclear energy.
00:47
Now, it's very energy-dense,
00:51
it produces solid, reliable power,
00:54
and it doesn't make any CO2.
00:56
Now we know of two ways
00:59
of making nuclear energy: fission and fusion.
01:00
Now in fission, you take a big nucleus,
01:05
you break it in part, in two,
01:08
and it makes lots of energy,
01:09
and this is how the nuclear reactor today works.
01:11
It works pretty good.
01:13
And then there's fusion.
01:15
Now, I like fusion. Fusion's much better.
01:17
So you take two small nuclei,
01:19
you put it together, and you make helium,
01:21
and that's very nice.
01:23
It makes lots of energy.
01:25
This is nature's way of producing energy.
01:26
The sun and all the stars in the universe
01:29
run on fusion.
01:31
Now, a fusion plant
01:34
would actually be quite cost-effective
01:35
and it also would be quite safe.
01:38
It only produces short term radioactive waste,
01:40
and it cannot melt down.
01:44
Now, the fuel from fusion comes from the ocean.
01:46
In the ocean, you can extract the fuel
01:49
for about one thousandth of a cent
01:51
per kilowatt-hour, so that's very, very cheap.
01:52
And if the whole planet would run on fusion,
01:55
we could extract the fuel from the ocean.
01:58
It would run for billions and billions of years.
02:00
Now, if fusion is so great, why don't we have it?
02:03
Where is it?
02:07
Well, there's always a bit of a catch.
02:08
Fusion is really, really hard to do.
02:10
So the problem is, those two nuclei,
02:13
they are both positively charged,
02:16
so they don't want to fuse.
02:17
They go like this. They go like that.
02:19
So in order to make them fuse,
02:21
you have to throw them at
each other with great speed,
02:22
and if they have enough speed,
02:24
they will go against the repulsion,
02:25
they will touch, and they will make energy.
02:27
Now, the particle speed
02:29
is a measure of the temperature.
02:31
So the temperature required for fusion
02:33
is 150 billion degrees C.
02:35
This is rather warm,
02:38
and this is why fusion is so hard to do.
02:40
Now, I caught my little fusion bug
02:43
when I did my Ph.D. here at the
University of British Columbia,
02:45
and then I got a big job in a laser printer place
02:49
making printing for the printing industry.
02:52
I worked there for 10 years,
02:54
and I got a little bit bored,
02:57
and then I was 40, and I got a mid-life crisis,
02:58
you know, the usual thing:
03:01
Who am I? What should I do?
03:03
What should I do? What can I do?
03:05
And then I was looking at my good work,
03:08
and what I was doing is I was cutting the forests
03:10
around here in B.C.
03:12
and burying you, all of you,
03:13
in millions of tons of junk mail.
03:15
Now, that was not very satisfactory.
03:19
So some people buy a Porsche.
03:20
Others get a mistress.
03:23
But I've decided to get my bit
03:25
to solve global warming and make fusion happen.
03:27
Now, so the first thing I did
03:31
is I looked into the literature and I see,
03:33
how does fusion work?
03:36
So the physicists have been
working on fusion for a while,
03:38
and one of the ways they do it
03:41
is with something called a tokamak.
03:43
It's a big ring of magnetic coil,
03:45
superconducting coil,
03:48
and it makes a magnetic field
03:49
in a ring like this,
03:50
and the hot gas in the middle,
03:52
which is called a plasma, is trapped.
03:54
The particles go round and round and round
03:56
the circle at the wall.
03:58
Then they throw a huge amount of heat in there
03:59
to try to cook that to fusion temperature.
04:01
So this is the inside of one of those donuts,
04:03
and on the right side you can see
04:05
the fusion plasma in there.
04:07
Now, a second way of doing this
04:09
is by using laser fusion.
04:11
Now in laser fusion, you have a little ping pong ball,
04:13
you put the fusion fuel in the center,
04:16
and you zap that with a whole
bunch of laser around it.
04:18
The lasers are very strong, and it squashes
04:21
the ping pong ball really, really quick.
04:22
And if you squeeze something hard enough,
04:24
it gets hotter,
04:26
and if it gets really, really fast,
04:27
and they do that in one billionth of a second,
04:29
it makes enough energy and enough heat
04:31
to make fusion.
04:33
So this is the inside of one such machine.
04:34
You see the laser beam and the pellet
04:36
in the center.
04:38
Now, most people think that fusion is going nowhere.
04:40
They always think that the physicists are in their lab
04:43
and they're working hard, but nothing is happening.
04:46
That's actually not quite true.
04:47
This is a curve of the gain in fusion
04:49
over the last 30 years or so,
04:51
and you can see that we're making now
04:53
about 10,000 times more fusion than we used to
04:55
when we started.
04:58
That's a pretty good gain.
04:59
As a matter of fact, it's as fast
05:00
as the fabled Moore's Law
05:02
that defined the amount of transistors
05:03
they can put on a chip.
05:05
Now, this dot here is called JET,
05:07
the Joint European Torus.
05:10
It's a big tokamak donut in Europe,
05:11
and this machine in 1997
05:14
produced 16 megawatts of fusion power
05:17
with 17 megawatts of heat.
05:20
Now, you say, that's not much use,
05:22
but it's actually pretty close,
05:24
considering we can get
05:26
about 10,000 times more than we started.
05:27
The second dot here is the NIF.
05:29
It's the National Ignition Facility.
05:32
It's a big laser machine in the U.S.,
05:34
and last month they announced
05:37
with quite a bit of noise
05:38
that they had managed to make more fusion energy
05:40
from the fusion
05:42
than the energy that they put in
the center of the ping pong ball.
05:43
Now, that's not quite good enough,
05:46
because the laser to put that energy in
05:48
was more energy than that,
05:50
but it was pretty good.
05:52
Now this is ITER,
05:54
pronounced in French: EE-tairh.
05:55
So this is a big collaboration of different countries
05:57
that are building a huge magnetic donut
06:01
in the south of France,
06:02
and this machine, when it's finished,
06:04
will produce 500 megawatts of fusion power
06:06
with only 50 megawatts to make it.
06:09
So this one is the real one.
06:12
It's going to work.
06:13
That's the kind of machine that makes energy.
06:13
Now if you look at the graph, you will notice
06:16
that those two dots are a little bit
06:17
on the right of the curve.
06:19
We kind of have fallen off the progress.
06:20
Actually, the science to make those machines
06:22
was really in time
06:24
to produce fusion during that curve.
06:25
However, there has been a bit of politics going on,
06:28
and the will to do it was not there,
06:31
so it drifted to the right.
06:33
ITER, for example, could have been built
06:35
in 2000 or 2005,
06:37
but because it's a big international collaboration,
06:39
the politics got in and it delayed it a bit.
06:41
For example, it took them about three years
06:44
to decide where to put it.
06:45
Now, fusion is often criticized
06:47
for being a little too expensive.
06:49
Yes, it did cost
06:51
a billion dollars or two billion dollars a year
06:52
to make this progress.
06:54
But you have to compare that to the cost
06:56
of making Moore's Law.
06:57
That cost way more than that.
06:59
The result of Moore's Law
07:00
is this cell phone here in my pocket.
07:02
This cell phone, and the Internet behind it,
07:04
cost about one trillion dollars,
07:06
just so I can take a selfie
07:09
and put it on Facebook.
07:12
Then when my dad sees that,
07:15
he'll be very proud.
07:16
We also spend about 650 billion dollars a year
07:19
in subsidies for oil and gas
07:23
and renewable energy.
07:25
Now, we spend one half of a percent of that on fusion.
07:27
So me, personally, I don't think it's too expensive.
07:31
I think it's actually been shortchanged,
07:34
considering it can solve all our energy problems
07:36
cleanly for the next couple of billions of years.
07:38
Now I can say that, but I'm a little bit biased,
07:41
because I started a fusion company
07:43
and I don't even have a Facebook account.
07:45
So when I started this fusion company in 2002,
07:48
I knew I couldn't fight with the big lads.
07:53
They had much more resources than me.
07:56
So I decided I would need to find a solution
07:58
that is cheaper and faster.
08:00
Now magnetic and laser fusion
08:02
are pretty good machines.
08:04
They are awesome pieces of technology,
08:05
wonderful machines, and they have shown
08:07
that fusion can be done.
08:08
However, as a power plant,
08:10
I don't think they're very good.
08:12
They're way too big, way too complicated,
08:14
way too expensive,
08:16
and also, they don't deal very much
08:17
with the fusion energy.
08:19
When you make fusion, the energy comes out
08:20
as neutrons, fast neutrons comes out of the plasma.
08:22
Those neutrons hit the wall of the machine.
08:24
It damages it.
08:27
And also, you have to catch
the heat from those neutrons
08:28
and run some steam to spin a turbine somewhere,
08:30
and on those machines,
08:32
it was all a bit of an afterthought.
08:34
So I decided that surely there
is a better way of doing that.
08:36
So back to the literature,
08:40
and I read about the fusion everywhere.
08:41
One way in particular attracted my attention,
08:43
and it's called magnetized target fusion,
08:46
or MTF for short.
08:48
Now, in MTF, what you want to do
08:50
is you take a big vat
08:53
and you fill that with liquid metal,
08:55
and you spin the liquid metal
08:57
to open a vortex in the center,
08:58
a bit like your sink.
09:00
When you pull the plug on a sink, it makes a vortex.
09:01
And then you have some pistons driven by pressure
09:03
that goes on the outside,
09:05
and this compresses the liquid metal
09:07
around the plasma, and it compresses it,
09:09
it gets hotter, like a laser,
09:11
and then it makes fusion.
09:12
So it's a bit of a mix
09:13
between a magnetized fusion
09:14
and the laser fusion.
09:16
So those have a couple of very good advantages.
09:18
The liquid metal absorbs all the neutrons
09:21
and no neutrons hit the wall,
09:23
and therefore there's no damage to the machine.
09:25
The liquid metal gets hot,
09:27
so you can pump that in a heat exchanger,
09:28
make some steam, spin a turbine.
09:30
So that's a very convenient way of doing
09:32
this part of the process.
09:34
And finally, all the energy to make the fusion happen
09:35
comes from steam-powered pistons,
09:38
which is way cheaper than lasers
09:41
or superconducting coils.
09:42
Now, this was all very good
09:44
except for the problem that it didn't quite work.
09:46
(Laughter)
09:48
There's always a catch.
09:50
So when you compress that,
09:51
the plasma cools down
09:53
faster than the compression speed,
09:55
so you're trying to compress it,
09:56
but the plasma cooled down and
cooled down and cooled down
09:58
and then it did absolutely nothing.
10:00
So when I saw that, I said,
well, this is such a shame,
10:02
because it's a very, very good idea.
10:04
So hopefully I can improve on that.
10:06
So I thought about it for a minute,
10:08
and I said, okay, how can we make that work better?
10:09
So then I thought about impact.
10:11
What about if we use a big hammer
10:13
and we swing it and we hit the nail like this,
10:15
in the place of putting the hammer on the nail
10:17
and pushing and try to put it in? That won't work.
10:19
So what the idea is
10:22
is to use the idea of an impact.
10:24
So we accelerate the pistons with steam,
10:25
that takes a little bit of time,
10:27
but then, bang! you hit the piston,
10:29
and, baff!, all the energy is done instantly,
10:31
down instantly to the liquid,
10:33
and that compresses the plasma much faster.
10:35
So I decided, okay, this is good, let's make that.
10:37
So we built this machine in this garage here.
10:39
We made a small machine
10:43
that we managed to squeeze
10:44
a little bit of neutrons out of that,
10:46
and those are my marketing neutrons,
10:48
and with those marketing neutrons,
10:50
then I raised about 50 million dollars,
10:51
and I hired 65 people. That's my team here.
10:54
And this is what we want to build.
10:57
So it's going to be a big machine,
10:58
about three meters in diameter,
11:00
liquid lead spinning around,
11:01
big vortex in the center,
11:03
put the plasma on the top and on the bottom,
11:05
piston hits on the side,
11:07
bang!, it compresses it,
11:09
and it will make some energy,
11:10
and the neutron will come out in the liquid metal,
11:11
going to go in a steam engine and make the turbine,
11:14
and some of the steam will go back
11:16
to fire the piston.
11:18
We're going to run that about one time per second,
11:19
and it will produce 100 megawatts of electricity.
11:21
Okay, we also built this injector,
11:26
so this injector makes the plasma to start with.
11:28
It makes the plasma at about
11:30
a lukewarm temperature of three million degrees C.
11:32
Unfortunately, it doesn't last quite long enough,
11:36
so we need to extend the life
of the plasma a little bit,
11:38
but last month it got a lot better,
11:41
so I think we have the plasma compressing now.
11:43
Then we built a small sphere, about this big,
11:45
14 pistons around it,
11:48
and this will compress the liquid.
11:49
However, plasma is difficult to compress.
11:52
When you compress it,
11:54
it tends to go a little bit crooked like that,
11:55
so you need the timing of the piston
11:57
to be very good,
11:59
and for that we use several control systems,
12:00
which was not possible in 1970,
12:02
but we now can do that
12:05
with nice, new electronics.
12:06
So finally, most people think that fusion
12:09
is in the future and will never happen,
12:12
but as a matter of fact, fusion is getting very close.
12:14
We are almost there.
12:17
The big labs have shown that fusion is doable,
12:18
and now there are small companies
that are thinking about that,
12:21
and they say, it's not that it cannot be done,
12:23
but it's how to make it cost-effectively.
12:26
General Fusion is one of those small companies,
12:28
and hopefully, very soon, somebody, someone,
12:30
will crack that nut,
12:33
and perhaps it will be General Fusion.
12:34
Thank you very much.
12:36
(Applause)
12:38

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Michel Laberge - Plasma physicist
In a lab near Vancouver, Michel Laberge and his team at General Fusion are building a prototype fusion reactor that mimics the processes of the sun to produce cheap, clean and abundant energy.

Why you should listen
Fusion, putting it briefly, is what happens inside the sun: intense heat and pressure combine to convert hydrogen into helium, releasing heat and energy in a self-sustaining reaction. Harnessing that same kind of reaction could someday solve the energy crisis here on Earth, and the US (at the National Ignition Facility in California, using the world's most powerful laser), Europe (at ITER) and China are all working on fusion in multi-billion-dollar labs. Meanwhile, just outside Vancouver, a private-government collaboration spending millions-with-an-m is keeping pace.
 
At General Fusion, plasma physicist Michel Laberge hopes to start a fusion reaction by combining several techniques in one reactor. Inside a spherical chamber, molten lead-lithium is spun up into a vortex, then shot with a pulse of magnetically contained plasma -- meanwhile, around the edge of the sphere, an array of pistons will drive a pressure wave into the center of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions. General Fusion is designing and protoyping each piece of this system.
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