Fusion energy is coming, and Canada needs to get back into the game

A public forum on fusion energy detailed the state of this developing technology and ways that Canada can return to the fusion R&D table.

(Edmonton) Canada is lagging—in danger of being left behind—in the global race to develop fusion energy. And it would be better to finish at the front of the pack when that clean-power technology is demonstrated and commercialized.

Organizers and participants in a day-long forum on fusion energy last weekend say it’s not too late to get back in the game and develop new industries—providing federal and provincial governments make financial investments in research and infrastructure.

The Nov. 4 forum organized by the Alberta-Canada Fusion Technology Alliance (ACFTA) provided an update on the state of fusion energy research and a call to action for governments, citizens and investors to support the field.

Technology to produce fusion energy would lead to virtually unlimited, emissions-free energy. One way to produce this power, which is as powerful as the fuel burning inside stars, is to use magnetic fields to condense atoms and contain plasma energy. The $3.9-billion ITER reactor in France is one example of this technique. Another technique uses lasers to heat a pellet of fuel, filled with hydrogen or helium. Nuclear reactions take place in fusion chambers—but there is not enough fuel in a pellet to be dangerous.

Speakers at the forum included University of Alberta electrical engineering professor Robert Fedosejevs and emeritus professor Allan Offenberger—both of whom are renowned fusion energy researchers. Visiting presenters featured leaders in the field including Dennis Whyte, MIT's Dean of Nuclear Sciences and Engineering and director of the MIT Fusion Center; and presenters from General Fusion, Continuum Lasers, University of Rochester Lab for Laser Energetics, and more.

Fedosejevs said there is local and national expertise in fusion energy, and there was general agreement among presenters that Canada could easily become an important player if it reinvested in fusion. Offenberger agreed. Fusion leadership is strong in Europe and Asia and the U.S. has fusion on its radar. If Canada stepped up, it could be the player that ties other projects together.

“Canada unfortunately doesn’t have it on the agenda so when the world finally gets there we aren’t even going to have the capacity to get in the game,” Offenberger said. “But we have a lot of smarts and we have good work habits. If we just get on that path you’d be surprised at how much the rest of the world will chip in.”

Last year, the ACFTA submitted a report on the state of fusion research and development across the country and called for the federal and provincial governments to invest in people and infrastructure, to support technology transfer and a supply chain so that Canada is a participant in the scientific demonstration of fusion.

The University of Alberta Faculty of Engineering has recently hired one professor with research expertise in the fusion field, and has made a commitment to bring on three more. And Offenberger said the money they require to start turning Canada into a force in fusion energy is modest. “But it will give us the capability to asses and determine those niches into which we can become players.”

And ACFTA is making some headway in the case for fusion. “We need to position Canada in this market,” Fedosejeves said. “It is going to be a driver of technologies. And anyone who is working on it is working at the leading edge of all these various technologies from laser photonics, laser fusion, robotics, materials, sensors computing—and all kinds of spinoffs can occur.”

“I feel strongly that Canada has to get back in,” he said. “It’s going to take a capacity-building phase, but it will give us the capability to asses and determine those niches into which we can become players.”