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Amazon's Bezos, VCs back nuclear fusion start-up

Start-up General Fusion gets $19.5 million in financing to pursue nuclear fusion, which has been studied for decades and always is considered decades away.

When it comes to energy technology, nuclear fusion is the ultimate "swing for the fences." Now at least one fusion venture is getting serious attention from start-up investors.

British Columbia-based General Fusion said today that it received US$19.5 million in a series B funding from venture capital and Canadian government funds. Among them was Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

A sketch of the nuclear fusion generator being designed by start-up General Fusion.
A sketch of the nuclear fusion generator being designed by start-up General Fusion. General Fusion

The funding, spotted by Toronto-based journalist Tyler Hamilton, will give General Fusion the money to complete the first phase of its planned development program. The company's target is to commercialize its "magnetized target fusion" technology within the decade, CEO Doug Richardson said in a statement.

Today's nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, or splitting atoms to release energy in the form of heat. Nuclear fusion, which occurs on the sun, is when two hydrogen atoms are heated to the point where they can fuse to form helium, a process which releases huge amounts of energy. In theory, that energy can be converted into electricity.

Research on nuclear fusion has been going on for decades and many people consider any practical use of fusion decades away. General Fusion's approach is a combination of existing methods, which it says will allow it to create a generator that will harness the heat from fusion to make electricity as power plants do today using cheaper methods than existing fusion research efforts.

According to a technical description on the company's Web site, General Fusion's process creates plasma, a state of matter where electrons move freely from the rest of atoms, of certain forms of hydrogen. That plasma, which is similar to a gas, is then heated in a magnetic field to 1 million degrees using a bank of capacitors, which produces a form of plasma in the shape of a doughnut.

That plasma is then compressed from a shock wave using pneumatic pistons surrounding a central sphere, causing the fusion reaction. The company also has a process for capturing the heat from the reaction. Given a significant amount of energy is needed to run the operation, General Fusion's Web site notes that one of the main technical challenges of nuclear fusion in general, once a reaction can be repeated, is creating a net output of energy.

Even with these long-standing technical issues and doubts over fusion's commercial viability, the investment is a sign of confidence in the company still at the early stages of product design. Other investors included Cenovus Energy and existing investors Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, GrowthWorks, Braemar Energy Ventures, Entrepreneurs Fund, Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and SET Venture Partners.