I had a chance to sit down and chat with Mike Donaldson, the Vice President, Fusion Island Engineering at General Fusion. It’s an interesting conversation about not only General Fusion’s technology, but the fusion industry at large. Hope you enjoy.
Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “Why Nuclear Fusion is Closer than You Think”: https://youtu.be/yNP8by6V3RA?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi4dFnLD9622FK77atWtQVv7
YouTube version of the podcast: https://www.youtube.com/stilltbdpodcast
Get in touch: https://undecidedmf.com/podcast-feedback
Support the show: https://pod.fan/still-to-be-determined
Follow us on Twitter: @stilltbdfm @byseanferrell @mattferrell or @undecidedmf
Undecided with Matt Ferrell: https://www.youtube.com/undecidedmf
of Still To Be Determined, we’re talking about nuclear fusion energy, and as usual, I’m Matt Ferrell, which shouldn’t be a surprise at this point, but I’m not being joined by my brother Sean. This week we’re taking a little time off for the holidays. So for today’s episode, I thought it’d be fun to share one of my interviews with McDonalds, who’s the vice President of Fusion in Island engineering at General Fusion.
They’re a company that I covered in a recent video and undecided about nuclear fusion energy and what they’re. I’ll include a link in the podcast description if you’d like to check that episode out. But without further ado, here’s my conversation with. So Mike, I was hoping that you could kind of start things off with just ex tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into Fusion.
Um, I’m an engineer. Um, uh, but I’ve spent my entire career in sort of early stage product development, and so it’s kind of in what we would call sort of low technology readiness levels. So it’s past the science part. But it’s before commercialization. So the best way for me to think about it is, is, you know, it requires technology development and, and requires a bit of a science mindset, but it also requires, uh, the pragmatism that comes from engineering, right?
So, right. It’s very early. It, you know, it’s before the product. . Um, but it’s definitely passed the science for science sake part. So that’s kind of what I’ve done in my career, is I’ve worked on new novel technologies and specifically very disruptive technologies. And, and so when he started up this company and he was looking for, uh, help.
Approached me and asked me if I’d join them. So I joined very early. We, I was employee number five. I really joined, well, I joined for lots of reasons, very important mission. Obviously it’s a big, tough problem and I like working on tough problems and it was a great opportunity to join a company that was trying to do some big and join them at the beginning.
Uh, combined that with the fact that I knew the founder, uh, and I. He, I knew his quality, let’s just say. So figured it was worthwhile to kind of join up for the ride. So that was 13 and a half years ago. We were five of us in a very small unit in the same place where we are right now. Um, we’ve expanded to take over, I do believe nine units in this office park and we are upwards of 200 employees now and we’ve even grow outgrown this office park.
So we’re moving into a new set of labs here in Vancouver. Uh, in the next quarter. So it’s been. Super exciting. I always like to tell people that, you know, I’ve been here 13 years and I learn something every day, whether it’s about the business, whether it’s about fusion, whether it’s about engineering, and it’s, uh, it’s been an awesome ride and we’re at a really exciting time in the company right now, so I’m looking forward to it Continuing.
For general fusion’s approach you’re using, was it magnetized? Target Fusion, that’s right. Yeah. Is what you’re, yeah. Yeah. Um, could you kind of walk through to high level how your system
works? Sure. So magnetized, target Fusion is, it really takes the benefits of what’s known out there in the Fusion right now and, and in the fusion world right now and puts a pragmatic approach on it.
So the big advantages of our technology are. They really remove the traditional barriers that have stood in the way of commercializing fusion. So we definitely need the fusion part to happen. , we don’t shy away from the fact that if you’re gonna produce a fusion power plant, you have to have the fusion working.
But from the first day, we’ve always looked at it as, okay, well how do I turn that into a practical, economical solution that can be able to produce power? And so the really, the. component to our technology is that we are using a, um, liquid metal wall to, uh, um, heat up the fusion fuel to fusion condition.
It’s, it’s much like a diesel engine, but quite a bit bigger. And, uh, yeah, it requires a little bit more science. So the big advantage that that has for us is it, well, first of all, the main energy driver that’s collapsing that. Liquid metal cavity is steam driven pistons. So this is a known technology that we are applying to our approach.
The other big advantage of it is, is because the fusion is happening in the middle of a cavity of, uh, liquid metal, it produces a big boost of energy. And that’s obviously what you want for a power plant, but the way that it produces that energy in, in, in traditional fusion approach. That energy actually damages your machine.
And so by us having the fusion reaction happen at the center of a big cavity of liquid metal, that liquid metal pro, uh, protects the rest of the machine. It also serves to capture the heat. From the energy that’s being released from fusion. So we have a natural way of having machine that can withstand the energy and withstand the, the fusion reaction.
And we also have a natural way of being able to, to capture that energy in a, in a known way. You can take that liquid metal, put it through a heat exchanger, boil steam, and then, you know, all sorts of traditional technologies from, uh, use steam to turn a turbine. So that part is. So it’s really a, a practic.
uh, approach, um, that removes those traditional barriers, uh, um, that other fusion approaches, uh, still haven’t, um, overcome yet.
So you don’t, it doesn’t require the use of gigantic magnets
to keep No, it doesn’t require, it doesn’t require large superconducting magnets to, mm-hmm. hold the, the plasma stability together.
It doesn’t require very large lasers. To, to do that as well. All of the hardware that we use to operate our machine is known technology. Uh, it does have to be done in a precise way. You know, we, we, we can’t , we can’t make a fusion reaction happen in a diesel engine. So we are definitely adapting that technology.
Um, yeah, we’re definitely adapting that technology to our approach. But the idea is, You’re using known engineering technology and then combining that all together, uh, to produce the fusion reaction. So, , it’s the way in which we produce the fusion reaction and the tools that we use to do that, um, that allow us to do it in a, in a practical and pragmatic and economic way.
Yeah. Well, 1% I was talking to in the past about fusion, different techniques had brought up how there’s kinda a spectrum between, you have all the engineering. things figured out, or you have the physics figured out and you’re somewhere on that spectrum. And some of these, like the gigantic iter, I know it’s an oversimplification, but like that’s okay.
Yeah, it is. It is More, has more of the physics figured out, but they’re, they’re struggling with the engineering side and there’s other techniques. They have more of the engineering figured out and there’s more questions on the physics side. Do you agree with that assessment and if you do, like where, where it sounds like you kind of got more of the engineering side kind of nailed down because you’re using known ways like the steam term, the.
Uh, pistons and all that kind of stuff. It sounds like you’re
so, so, while I agree with you that it’s nervous implication, I understand where it’s coming from. Yeah. You know, you need both, first of all. Right? Yeah. You need the engineering prism, and you need the fusion to happen. But what’s unique about General Fusion, As we started from the get-go with commercial commercialization in mind, so our founder came up, came up with an idea.
He’s a very smart man. He’s a plasma physicist. He did his PhD in, in Fusion and, but he also spent a career in industry and, uh, building products. And so he understood that. Again, you needed both. So General Fusion is really the first company that set out and said, okay, we don’t just want to create fusion.
We wanna create a fusion power plant. And what that means is, every day in our culture and our approach, we have to have that path to commercialization in mind. Now, what makes it. Very interesting is you still, as I said before, you need the science to work. And so it’s not that we’re ignoring the science and in fact you, you can’t have, like I said, you can’t have a fusion power plant without fusion, but.
at the core of our company culture and at the core of our mission is to do it in a way that is commercializable. And it’s a really interesting, I think, I think it’s, I think that’s that point that we, that we sit at in the development of our technology is, is really important and really interesting. So you do need to.
It’s technology development. You need to be open to new solutions and new ways of doing things. But, and, and you’ve gotta be careful of overly bounding people. But at the same time, the guiding principle is, okay, that’s great. Please let me know how that can please demonstrate to me how that can help in our path to commercialization.
And I think it keeps our team and our company very focused on what the end goal.
So it sounds like because of that, you’re looking at the whole , the whole puzzle, which is also supply chain, how you’d maintain it. Making sure you have the materials and everything to commercialize.
And so from the commercialization standpoint, um, we wanna make sure that we’re not using any exotic materials. So you bring up supply chain, while we do need to partner, uh, with suppliers that can build big industrial equipment, there’s lots of people out there that can build. Big industrial equipment.
And while we do need to select those suppliers and partners so that they can work with us on the development of this technology, we are not establishing a new supply chain. We do not need to create a supply chain for superconducting magnet. Uh, and we think about the operation of the machine. We think about the op.
How long is this machine going glass? Does that make sense in a, in a commercial setting? You know? And are we on the path to being able to do that? I think that’s key to our approach. Well, well clearly we are, uh, um, um, well clearly on the path to providing power in 2030 and there’s a lot to in, in the 2030s, and there’s a lot to, there’s a lot to do from here on out.
Um, we are making sure that we’re keeping all of those things in mind as we go. .
Right. Which, which actually leads to one of my questions I had around the lithium metal. Yes. Not the lithium metal. The liquid. The liquid metal. Yep. Is from my understanding is you actually, from the reaction that’s happening, you’re actually converting some of that metal.
into, was it tridium? And
a very, very, very small amount. So, okay. The, the vast majority of fusion approaches, not all of them, but the vast majority of fu of of fusion approaches are doing a form of fusion, which is, which is fusion? Two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium, and tridium. Mm-hmm. . Okay. So deuterium is hydrogen with one neutron on it.
You might have heard of heavy. , that heavy water is made with water with deuterium, so it, it’s still hydrogen, but it’s got a neutron in the, in the nucleus as well. Um, Tridium has it, it has one more neutron in it. Deuterium is naturally occurring. Um, we can get deuterium from seawater. , and we do that every day.
Like, like Canada actually, um, is, is a leader in, in, in the production use of heavy water because of our, uh, uh, because of the fission reactors that we’ve developed in Canada. So deuterium, we know how to get now, tridium is not naturally occurring, it decays. And so in order for you to have a, a fusion power plant that runs on deuterium and tridium, you need to have a source of tri.
it’s not naturally occurring. What General Fusion, appro, what General Fusion’s approach does is we make our own Tridium. This isn’t, this isn’t unique to General Fusion. The reaction of the fusion reaction with lithium producing Tridium is looked at by a couple of other approaches out there, but what is unique?
To General Fusion is we make enough tridium to be able to run our power plant. So this is another one of those ideas where we’ve leveraged some existing technologies and some existing science, but we’ve been able to leverage it in a way that it makes our power plant sustainable. Right.
And one question that’s kind of fast forwarding to like when you do have a working plant, , this is since it’s like a diesel engine that’s gonna be like a engine that’s constantly running.
Yep. How often does it, how often does it have to kind of pulse or. Yep. To to maintain, to maintain its load that’s gonna be
provided. That’s, so, it, it, it’s gonna pulse on a, on, um, a rate of about one times per second, and that is in order to put enough energy on the grid so it, you can slow it down a little bit.
You can, you can speed it up a little bit. But what we’re aiming for right now in order to make the economics work is about one time. .
Okay. And I, the, one of the other questions I had was, I, I had read that you’ve gone through many iterations of the, what is it, the piston,
we’ve gone through a couple of iterations of the piston.
I mean, um mm-hmm. , we’ve, we’ve, we, we’ve been on a technology development path. We’ve developing the technology for 20 years and what our approach has been. Let’s develop the individual subsystems first and on their own. Okay? Basically, in order for us to demonstrate, in order to demonstrate fusion, we really need to do it at scale.
And so the technology development approach has been, okay, well let’s take a look at all the components that we need. The liquid metal, the pistons, how to ma, how to inject the fuel. That’s what we call our plasma injector. How to the shape of the plasma fuel to put it into the liquid metal cavity. And for the last 20 years we’ve been developing all of those independently.
Now what we’re doing is we’re putting them all together into our fusion demonstration plan and what the fusion demonstration plan is gonna. When we put all those components and systems together, we will reach fusion temperatures and it’ll validate our approach and validate the economics in a commercial
And that’s what you’re, you’re gonna be building what, over the next five years you’re building?
That’s what we’re building over in, in, in the United Kingdom at the column center for Fusion Energy. Yes. One of the quick
I had was, are you, how are you using machine learning and computer model? , end
Yeah, for sure. Evolving your technology for sure. Yeah,
so machine learning, computer modeling, simulation, that those capabilities have grown as, you know, exponentially over the last, you know, 20, 30 years. And so we’re leveraging simulation in particular, modeling in particular in, in our design. So we use computational fluid dynamics model.
To develop how to form that liquid metal cavity and what’s gonna happen to that cavity when it can, when it compresses. We’ve just gotten into using AI and, and where we would use that in particular is on the analysis of our, of our data. So when we’re developing this technology, I mentioned earlier how.
We need to, we’ve made all the components. One of those components we made is something called a plasma injector. That’s really the, at the source what, what We need to understand how that fuel, when it compresses is going to heat up. And so in our labs here in Vancouver, you know, we have the. One of the world’s largest plasma injectors.
And, and we make these fuel targets. We call them by target mean, it’s the thing that’s going to be compressed. We make these fuel targets every day and we measure them and we get data off them and we get, you know, I’m not sure if it’s gigabytes of data for every time we, we create a, uh, plasma, but it’s, it’s right up there.
And so one of the ways that we can leverage, uh, machine. is, uh, by throwing it at that data set to really understand what we’ve got. Do you think
the computer modeling that we have available today is one of the reasons it feels like fusion research has kind of accelerated ?
Absolutely. Um, so the, uh, capabilities, the capabilities of both supercomputers and, and other, you know, more conventional clusters has gone up and.
It’s accelerated the pace at which everybody, you know, us other privates and the, the fusion industry, that’s, that’s always been there in academia and national labs, um, have accelerated the a hundred percent.
Yeah. It’s, it’s from the outside looking in, it feels like over the past five to 10 years, things around fusion have just.
Accelerated to a point where we’ve kind of never seen it like this before and the big influx of private funding into companies like General Fusion. Absolutely.
And I think that’s driven by a few things. You know, people are starting to realize that the time for Fusion is now and. They’re starting to realize that the capabilities and the ability to produce fusions right now, it it, it’s gonna serve a need.
The thing, the thing about fusion is that it’s going to be clean on demand, uh, reliable, safe energy. It has no emissions. Nobody would argue about the benefits of fusion. Uh, you, you, you can, you can see the benefits of it. There’s obviously a need for that right now with our, with our current climate and combined with, so, so you have the need and combined with the fact that people are realizing.
Wow. These, these, the science-based, um, these supporting technologies like ai, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, has really come into to those capabilities have built up over the last period of time. Advanced modeling and simulation capabilities, add all those together with the ability, add all those together, which increases your ability to execute and deliver.
Combine that with the need has really led to a massive investment in fusion.
The other thing I’ve been finding interesting is the private companies are pretty much all saying the same thing. Like General Fusions is saying this, like you just said it today. Your goal is commercialization. Net positive electricity production.
It’s like that’s, that is the goal. That’s your North Star. Yep. What’s, what’s your take on kind of the fusion reporting up until this point? Which tends to focus on things like the, the Q factor, and it tends to create confusion in the public when, like, what does that even mean, ?
Yeah. You know what I mean?
It’s like, yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s hard. Right. Um, Yeah, kinda. It kind of comes back to my point of what General Fusion, I really believe is the first company that, from the get-go was thinking about commercialization. And it also comes back to my point about what I said earlier. Okay. So clearly you need the fusion in, you need the fusion to work in order to have a fusion power plant.
So you have to have both. And I think up until General Fusion came along, look, the fusion part is hard. Let’s not, let’s not deny it. I mean, it would be very difficult to say. , it’s, it’s not a big, it’s not a big problem. You know, this is a problem that we’re, that we’re trying to solve and has to be solved, but you need both components of it to it.
And so that’s where General Fusion I said, has come in with. Our approach, uh, combines a pragmatism and, and a goal on you need both. You need the ability not only to have the fusion reaction, but you needed the ability to do it in a way that is, uh, practical, uh, econo and economical. And that’s why when we focus on.
The, the collapsing liquid metal wall driven by steam powered pistons. You know, that’s, that’s existing, that’s existing technology, and I think that gives us a decided advantage.
Yeah. I mean, you’re, you’re talking about having a demonstrator in five years or so, talking about the 2030s for commercialized products.
Yep. , a lot of people are highly skeptical of this. Sure. How, how do you, how do you respond to that skepticism?
Well, we have a plan and we have a plan that, uh, demonst that shows our path to commercialization. So the first part is to demonstrate our approach at scale. In parallel with that, we’re developing some of the commercial technologies and, and, and partnering, partnering with suppliers and other partners were appropriate to.
Put those in parallel. It’s definitely an aggressive schedule for sure, but we have to, we have to keep our eye on the ball. And so for me, I really see the Fusion demonstration plant as a step towards that. We’re not forgetting about the commercialization. We are doing it in parallel, but the most important part is to get this fusion demonstration plant demonstrating that we can reach fusion conditions at scale after.
There will be some challenges. It’s not all done, but yeah, the opportunities to leverage, I wouldn’t even necessarily say existing technology, but existing commercial solutions is very clear at that point. So the first thing that we have to have aggressive time schedules. But we feel they’re realistic and, but we are gonna focus on that next key step first, I guess, would be the best way for me to put it.
Right. What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead of you over the next three to
five years? Wow. That’s a, that’s a difficult question. You know, as I said, you heard early on, I’m employee number five in a, in a, in a fusion company that’s trying to do something big. So obviously I’m fairly, uh, uh, detail oriented.
So , yeah. You know, I’ve got a lot of stuff in my head. I think one of the biggest challenges that we’ve, that we’ve got and but our company is actually set up for this, is we need to be, we need to be nimble. This is a new technology, and we need to, we need to be nimble and we need to be able to move fast.
Um, we also need to be able to do that at scale, right? I mean, this is, this is a, this is a big machine I, I just mentioned earlier. This isn’t something that we’re gonna be able to do. Um, this isn’t something that we’re gonna be able to do on our desktop. Now, the advantages that we have of that is we have partnered.
With, uh, a world class fusion organization that in the UK at the column center for Fusion Energy that has built at. Fusion devices before, not our device, but they’ve, they, they, we can leverage their expertise in, uh, applying to, uh, to, to our approach.
Um, are you talking about Jet? Are you talking about the The
Yeah. The uk aa, they built Jet. Absolutely. Okay. And they have experience with building these big, large fusion test beds. It’s not exactly the same as ours, but there is a lot of experience that we’re going to be able to leverage outta that. So we’re. Set up well with an in, with an incredible partner, um, right.
Uh, that can help us along that journey. The other thing is, is we are partnering with, uh, on the engineering side then we, we, we have, uh, commercial partners that are helping accelerate that. So I think the biggest challenge that we have as a company is keeping that small, nimble, let’s go get it done attitude, but leveraging these other partners to be able to do it at scale.
But to be perfectly honest with you, it’s a pretty fun challenge to. . Yeah.
So the questions I had was you were a private company. , but how important is like governmental support in advancing fusion?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s a social problem, right? And I think government plays an important role. So we’ve been, um, massively supported by the Canadian government in particular.
We are a Canadian co. We are based in Canada, I should say. Um, but we are getting support from the UK government and we’ve just recently. Some government support from the United States in the form of two infused grants. Um, so government definitely plays a role and I think government has recognized that over the last five to 10 years.
Um, it is a look. General Fusion has many stakeholders. We have investors who’ve invested in us to solve this problem. We have employees and, and we have social stakeholders as well. And, and, and the government plays a part in those, in representing those social stakeholders. I would say, and so we’ve been very fortunate to have support from all the governments where we’re located, and we’re looking forward to continuing to grow that support.
Right. One question. I, I meant to ask this earlier. The demonstrator is not gonna be grid tied. It’s gonna be in its own. That’s right. Right. Yeah. But how much, like what is your target goal for how much electricity you’re trying
to produce? When we get to the commercial plant, Yes. Yeah. When we get to the commercial plant, one unit, think about it.
We, we call it a, a fusion island. So one unit, one heat engine, um, will eventually turn into a hundred megawatts on a, around a hundred megawatts on the grid as to whether or not, Um, you have multiple engines that tie into one backend with, you know, one heat exchanger, you know, one turbine set. You know, that’s about, that’s to, that’s to be determined.
Um, but all of that backend set, like I said, is, is commercially available. So we really think about ourselves as the, as the heat engine that feeds into that. And Okay. Um, the size of it is gonna be on the order of a hundred megawatts.
So it sounds like it’s a modular system where you could kind of scale it up to whatever you’d need.
Yeah. For Absolutely.
So it doesn’t, uh, each one of those is, is, um, uh, just, that’s exactly right. It is a modular system for sure.
Okay. Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d wanna bring up about General Fusion? I mean,
The benefits of fusion are clear. Like I said, they’re, it’s clean on demand energy and it’s safe, no emissions.
You know, general Fusion is an industry leader and what’s unique about us is our pragmatic and practical approach to providing fusion energy. And the last thing I guess I would say is, as we’ve mentioned, you know, the time for Fusion is now we see, you know, government funding and the technological advances all coming together at once.
And I think General Sheets is in a great position to be able to leverage. All right. And
on a personal level, how, how, how do you feel about the entire fusion industry at large? Do you, do you feel like there’s a lot of really exciting advancement happening?
I mean, absolutely. What’s your, um, so I’ve been here, like I said, for 13 years.
And when I started at General Fusion, there were very few privates, and the privates were kind of looked at a little bit, uh, sideways, to be perfectly honest with you. Um, but we’re getting a lot of validation, I guess would be the best way to put it. Not only through our investment, but within the Fusion community.
You know, there’s a bunch of very smart, uh, plaza physicists that are going into, uh, going in and working for the privates. Like I said, we’ve now partnered with, uh, the column center for Fusion Energy, the home. . It is an incredibly exciting time to be infusion and just the fact that the industry is growing and there’s more interest in it, just in, in increases the chances that, uh, we’re going to be able to deliver.
Well, I really appreciate your time. No problem. I’d like to thank Mike and General Fusion for being willing to talk to me about Fusion and their technology. It was an absolute pleasure talking to them. Now, do you have any thoughts on General Fusion or Fusion in general? Drop a comment below the video if you’re watching this on YouTube, or feel free to shoot us a message through the contract information in the podcast description.
If you’d like to support the show, please consider reviewing us on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, wherever you’re listening. And don’t forget to subscribe on any of those platforms or YouTube. And if you’d like to support us directly, you can hit the join button on. Or you can also go to still TBD fm and click the Become a Supporter button to throw us a few coins.
As Sean likes to say, throw a few coins at our heads. Thanks so much for listening or watching. We’ll see you in the next one.