Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Seeker Spotlight: Brendan Cassidy

GeneralFusionGeneral Fusion has launched its first Challenge, “Method for Sealing Anvil Under Repetitive Impacts Against Molten Metal”, in partnership with Innocentive. The Theoretical Challenge seeks a new sealing method for a key component of General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion energy system, offering a prize of $20,000 for a winning solution.

Hi Brendan, thanks for joining us today. To start, could you tell us a bit about General Fusion?

Simply put, General Fusion is developing commercial fusion energy. Founded in 2002 near Vancouver, Canada, our now-65-employee-company – mainly physicists and engineers – is supported by a world-class group of energy venture capital funds, industry leaders, and technology pioneers, such as Jeff Bezos. General Fusion is widely recognized as the global leader in Magnetized Target Fusion, which we believe to be the fastest, most practical and lowest cost path to commercial fusion energy.

What is fusion energy?

Fusion occurs when two hydrogen atoms are heated to extreme temperatures and “fuse” together, creating a helium atom and releasing energy. Fusion powers the sun, and all of the stars for that matter. Here on Earth, heat energy from fusion could be used to produce steam to drive electrical turbines or for industrial process heat.

And what would be the benefits of fusion energy over existing energy sources?

Fusion energy holds immense promise as a clean, safe and abundant energy source. Fusion generates neither pollution nor greenhouse gases. The process is inherently safe in that it can’t run away and produces no long-lived radioactive waste. The fuel is hydrogen –which we can easily extract from seawater and can derive from lithium, both of which are in abundant supply. There’s enough accessible fusion fuel to power the entire planet for hundreds of millions of years.

So how does it work?

Our Magnetized Target Fusion system is based on a sphere into which we pump molten lead-lithium in order to form a vortex – just like the one you see when you drain your bathtub. Once every second, magnetically-confined hydrogen plasma (hot, ionized gas) is injected into that vortex and an array of pistons – or hammers – simultaneously strikes the surface of the sphere, driving a pressure wave into the center of the sphere and compressing the plasma to fusion conditions.

What’s the origin of this first challenge from General Fusion?

The sphere itself isn’t one continuous shell, but rather it has holes all around the surface – one where each hammer strikes. Inside each hole is a cylindrical metal plug – we call them anvils – and the hammers strike the anvils, which move back and forth a few millimeters on each impact, transferring the energy into the molten lead-lithium. This challenge is seeking a new methodology for sealing our anvils into the sphere, while still allowing them to move. This is an engineering problem that we need to solve in order to turn our fusion technology into a commercial power plant.

What are you hoping to achieve with this Challenge and can you describe the impact of a successful solution?

We’ve been working with a simple graphite gasket seal which can survive a few dozen impacts before it deforms and needs to be replaced. This has been good enough for us to develop our core fusion technology by allowing us to build full-scale prototypes of the pistons and anvils and even a prototype sphere with fourteen of these assemblies (this device is shown in our challenge image) in order to study and optimize the collapsing vortex.

Now we’re looking for a sealing method that will survive impacts once a second for years at a time, or tens of millions of impacts per year. A successful solution to this challenge might not get us there right away – we’re asking for something that will take 1000 impacts – but it will allow us to build a full-scale system demonstrating our Magnetized Target Fusion approach and will hopefully even seed the development of a solution for a commercial power plant.

What was your motivation for crowdsourcing this Challenge?

General Fusion is a small company trying to solve a big problem. We’ve got quite a few talented, smart people here, but we know that there are many talented, smart people elsewhere. We want to tap into a large pool of knowledge spanning a broad variety of industries in order to find solutions that are creative, practical, or perhaps even already proven in other applications.

This is an example of a problem we believe we could solve ourselves, but doing so will take time and resources, and will probably involve us learning the hard way what won’t work. We think there may be solvers out there who have already worked on similar problems and who have already learned these lessons, or maybe there’s someone who will come up with a really clever idea.

What other benefits do you predict from crowdsourcing?

We’re always looking for ways to go faster. Crowdsourcing this challenge could lead us to a solution faster and more cost effectively than working on it internally would. It will also allow us to focus on the other key technical challenges, like plasma physics, in order to progress our fusion technology.

What are the key attributes you’d like to see (or not see) in a winning solution?

The big constraints on this problem are the environmental factors (high temperatures and extreme pressures), the repetitive impacts, and the need to allow the anvil to move. We’re keen to see what kind of creative solutions solvers come up with to address all of these constraints at once.

Any final words of encouragement for our Solvers?

This is an opportunity for anyone to contribute to our mission of changing the world with abundant, clean, safe and affordable energy.  Fusion is hard, and we appreciate your help!

The path to fusion requires many difficult problems to be solved, so we’ve already got a few other challenges in the works that will span a variety of fields, from engineering and materials science, to physics and to computing. So if you don’t win this challenge, or if it’s outside of your area of expertise, keep your sharpened pencils at the ready!


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