Skip to comments.The Future May Be Getting Close to Reality in Vancouver, With D-Wave and General Fusion
Posted on 05/07/2014 8:58:37 PM PDT by ckilmer
Vancouver is a land of scenic harbors, tall mountains and startups trying to harness the limits of physics.
In town for the TED conference, I had the occasion to visit two such companies yesterday: D-Wave and General Fusion. D-Wave, a quantum computing company, is all about the very cold and the rather tiny. It has built enormous refrigerators that each house a single chip, laced with “qubits” that can be in the superposition of both 1 and 0 at the same time and can carry an electric current with no resistance at low temperatures.
Meanwhile, General Fusion is all about huge and hot. The company is putting together the pieces for an alpha version of a nuclear reactor plant that would use magnetized target fusion. That is, it slams together hydrogen atoms by shooting donut-shaped electrified plasma into a chamber where it’s squished by synchronized pistons from all angles. This happens at a temperature of 150 million degrees. The point: To create clean and cheap energy.
Both of the companies say their products are on the verge of a breakthrough. Over about a decade of research and development, they have each acquired their own posse of doubters, who say they are designing expensive, impractical systems that don’t really work yet.
That may well be true, but people at both D-Wave and General Fusion like to compare their cost of development — and the broader investment in their respective spaces — to the estimated trillion dollars of investment over the past decades that have fueled the rise of traditional computing and its generational leaps forward associated with Moore’s Law.
Fusion always seems like a far-away prospect, but it’s closer than you might think, said General Fusion founder Michel Laberge in a talk at TED. “Very soon, somebody will crack that nut,” he said.
In fact, plotted against the curve of Moore’s Law, progress in fusion performance looks pretty parallel, according to Laberge.
The difference is, fusion doesn’t really work at all until it crosses a threshold on that chart — one Laberge and General Fusion think they are very close to achieving, if they can only create a system that is 150 million degrees, dense and long-lasting.
Over at D-Wave, which is headquartered about a 20-minute drive from the Vancouver Convention Centre, a 512-qubit quantum computer is already in the hands of customers and research partners, who have demonstrated that these machines can match the state of the art in classical computing.
What that means is, for certain problems — generally where someone is trying to optimize something — the D-Wave machine can already compute something just as fast as a state-of-the art classical set-up by considering multiple options simultaneously.
But that’s not enough. At this point there’s no big advantage to quantum computing because it’s not cost effective. The big leap is when quantum computers can do things demonstrably better than classical computers so they justify the big fridge and the big price.
D-Wave hopes and believes that will happen later this year, upon the arrival of a 1024-qubit quantum computer that’s close to being ready.
The promise of quantum computing is the possibility of solving problems that would require massive quantities of computers — perhaps more than are available in the world.
Because the combination of computing capacity and big data has been so effective in machine learning, it’s quite possible that this work will aid leaps forward in artificial intelligence. In fact, Google has a D-Wave machine and is working on that now. So is D-Wave co-founder Geordie Rose, who emphasized in an interview yesterday, “Whether or not it’s quantum is not important. It’s what it does.”
Meanwhile, a 15-minute drive away, General Fusion, which shares investors with D-Wave, is about two to three years out from creating its own power plant. Today, the pistons work well, and the plasma is hot enough and dense enough. Within the last month, the gas donut has started lasting long enough for the system to work, so now the company is turning its focus to compression and timing, according to Michael Delage, VP of strategy and corporate development.
Similar to D-Wave, General Fusion is at a point where it needs to get its system working and cost effective. “We expect to be at break-even energy in a couple of years,” said CEO Nathan Gilliland.
When this is built out, General Fusion thinks it can provide power at a cost of seven cents per kilowatt, comparable to the cost of coal.
Why this is important? As Laberge said, “It could solve all our energy problems cleanly for the next billion years.”
So why are both of these companies in Vancouver? Part of it is the investment climate. D-Wave founder Rose called out Haig Farris of Ventures West and Mike Brown of Chrysalix as “gunslinger types” who invest for the long term. D-Wave has raised $130 million, while General Fusion has raised $50 million.
Or maybe it’s the mountains meeting the sea. “There’s something around competency in hardware and pushing boundaries,” said General Fusion’s Delage.
And especially during the week of TED, it’s a place of optimism. “With AI, or quantum computing, or fusion, there are these things the world should have — and the fact they don’t is a travesty,” said Rose. “We’ve created tremendous wealth on this planet, and we should be using it on our sense of wonder.”
I have no clue as to whether this stuff has the design specs to work. I’d be interested to hear anyone who understood the fusion issues well enough to comment on what this group is doing.
General Fusion is getting 60 million in funding from the canadian government plus a bunch of different investors. They’ve been working at this since 2002.
I think the general fusion people will fail.
Fusion for power will come someday but probably be an accidental discovery.
Right now people are trying to do it the way the sun does it which is randomly smash a bunch of protons together at high temp and pressure and some of them fuse to make energy.
the thing is most of them don’t fuse, even in the sun.
someone will stumble onto the exact conditions of temp and pressure and whatever else that makes protons fuse as opposed to almost all the ones that don’t
That is when fusion will be the power source and it will probably be an accident when it is discovered.
Then instead of smashing 1 million protons together to get some of them to fuse. You smash 2 protons together under the right condidtions and they fuse and make energy.
30 years away....
You need to turn the streams of hydrogen gas ie. protons into standing waves and then take another standing wave stream that oscillate that is perpendicular and have it intersect that one to get fusion at the intersection point...
“if they can only”
If I only had a nickel for every time...well, never mind.
Get back to me when they actually have something, please.
Unfortunately protons have all sorts of annoying properties that make this difficult. The closest analog to what you are suggesting is an IEC device, like a Farnsworth fusor. Although these devices will reliably and stably fuse atoms the total amount of energy produced is only a fraction of what goes in to make it work. Plus the energy carried away by the components of the reactor seem to put a damper on any kind of scaling, tho Polywell fusor does seem promising (uses magnetic fields to support the charged particles and also prevent electrons from leaching energy). George Miley also seems to have suggested a pulsed IEC might scale.
I think Winterberg has pointed out you can also use the energy of the fusion to prolong a pulsed burn if you set up the right initial conditions. I downloaded all of his papers once thinking it might be an interesting series of experiments in high voltage and pulse generators. I don't think the neighbors would appreciate it tho - 1 wrong zap and every electronic gizmo in a 1/2 mile radius is fried. Plus strong x-rays might be hard to contain without a big ball of dense plasma - which is really hard to contain.
The real irony is plain old fission with plain old thermodynamic energy conversion (ie some Rankine cycle variation) is fairly easy to build and could be relatively cheap (thorium) and scale down well (40KW - 1MW). However the attention and care necessary to prevent a radioactive contamination disaster is substantial and probably beyond reasonable for ubiquitous deployment. Too bad for my neighborhood nuclear power plant program...maybe if we had developed serious reprocessing technology it could have been used to clean up spills and such.
Other people are using lasers to confine the protons.
Some people have probably suggested putting the two together.
But why not go one step further?
Imagine a toroidal aquarium surrounded by a magnetic field, and imagine sharks with lasers swimming in that aquarium.
Now we're talkin'!
Just what we need. Laser armed sharks just begging to be scooped up into a tornado.