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While the process of nuclear fission generates energy by splitting the nucleus of an atom, the fusion process does the same through combining them.Courtesy of General Fusion

One of Canada’s most promising clean technology startups, General Fusion Inc., said Tuesday it has raised US$130-million as it prepares to build a prototype nuclear fusion energy plant to further its quest to bring a carbon-free source of electricity to the world.

Burnaby, B.C.-based General Fusion said in December, 2019, it had raised US$65-million of the round, led by Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek and backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Business Development Bank of Canada, among several others.

Now, it has raised the other half of the funding. Investors added in the second round include another Singapore sovereign wealth fund – GIC – technology investment firm IBX; Saudi Arabia’s Jameel Investment Management Co.; nuclear energy-focused hedge fund Segra Capital; the private charity of Fiona McKean and husband Tobi Lutke, chief executive of Shopify Inc.; and an unidentified U.S. state pension fund.

That brings the total raised to date by General Fusion to well over US$300-million, including support from governments in Canada, the United States and Britain, CEO Christofer Mowry said.

The 19-year-old company will need to raise much more before proving its technology, which it has tested successfully, works at scale or that it can function in a commercially viable way – but if it does it could have a profound impact. “Fusion should be the vaccine of climate change,” Mr. Mowry said.

While the process of nuclear fission generates energy by splitting the nucleus of an atom, the fusion process does the same through combining them.

General Fusion has developed a process in which ultraheated hydrogen atoms are fused into helium, as happens in the sun. It injects hydrogen fuel into a molten lead-lithium sphere; pressure on the sphere forces fusion reactions within the fuel, releasing heat into the liquid metal that can be converted into electricity. The process is carbon-free. Its key input is water, and its reactor would not be at risk of meltdowns.

Overcoming longstanding skepticism about fusion energy, General Fusion has shown its technology works, Mr. Mowry said. Now it is in the midst of a project to develop and build a demonstration plant to prove it can do what it promises at scale. General Fusion is set to break ground next summer at UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, near Oxford. The process is expected to take another three to four years.

General Fusion will need to raise additional sums to complete the work and get the plant into operation, now estimated to cost roughly US$400-million, and to start working with utilities to cultivate early adopters.

Mr. Mowry said “the early money is the most expensive” to raise. “What I need to do is keep the process going, and as we move forward and achieve milestones, the value of the business goes up and the incremental funding is then cheaper” to obtain. The next leg of fundraising begins next year, he added.

General Fusion is competing with other heavily-financed fusion startups including Commonwealth Fusion Systems, TAE Technologies, Helion Energy, all based in the United States, and U.K.-based Tokomak Energy.

“If all goes to plan you will have a proof of concept on fusion in the next three to eight years depending on the project – an actual working test reactor” said Arthur Hyde, a portfolio manager with Dallas-based investor Segra. “We were not looking for just the ability to prove that fusion technology is possible, but to find a commercial-scale power plant that utilities and world governments actually needing to solve their energy transition can buy.” In that regard, “we think General Fusion is leagues ahead of their competitors.”

Asked why the test plant will be in Britain, Mr. Mowry said his company was “derisking” its chance of success by locating on the site of one of the world’s leading operational fusion research centre. “They have 1,000 of the world’s leading fusion engineers and scientists there and a huge supply chain” in fusion technology, he said. “You can’t find that type of talent walking down the street” in Canada.

If the plant is successful in producing carbon-free fusion energy at scale, Mr. Mowry said the company hopes to see the technology be commercialized by the end of the decade, starting with the construction of pilot plants that for the first time would feed electricity into power grids. General Fusion will not build those plants but license its technology and provide core, proprietary components to constructors such as strategic partner Hatch, a Mississauga-based engineering consultancy. The plants, which would cost about US$800-million to US$1-billion apiece at current prices, would then be operated by electricity generation companies, Mr. Mowry said.

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