Cenovus Energy bets on fusion

Nuclear fusion could find a home in the oil sands, but not anytime soon

September 01, 2011

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Illustration by Studio Tipi

Does nuclear technology have a role to play in the evolution of Alberta’s oil sands sector? Cenovus Energy Inc. thinks it might, although not necessarily in the form of power lines delivering electricity from a multibillion-dollar power plant built in the province’s Peace Country. The Encana Corp. spinoff is thinking smaller.

In May, the Calgary firm quietly invested $3.8 million in Burnaby, British Columbia-based General Fusion, in the hopes that its technology might one day help oil sands companies wring more bitumen from the ground. “It’s like a wildcat well with a low chance of success. We hope they succeed,” says Dave Hassan, team lead of environmental technology investments at Cenovus.

The investment was made via an environmental opportunity fund the Calgary firm set up to support projects and companies that could help reduce the multifarious impacts of energy production and consumption. Cenovus has committed roughly $16 million to similarly promising ventures between 2003 and 2010. “We’re trying to find entrepreneurial companies that can make a difference,” Hassan says.

That an oil sands mainstay would invest in a fledgling company, one backed exclusively by venture capital, with a long-shot idea to harness nuclear atoms may seem like an odd partnership. But Hassan thinks the relationship could bear fruit. (It also helps that power produced by General Fusion would be abundant and emit no greenhouse gas emissions or radioactive waste.) “We thought it was a great technology,” Hassan says.

Nuclear technology has long been rumored to make a cameo in the oil sands, but commercial applications have not materialized. With nuclear fusion – the opposite of fission, which powers the world’s nuclear plants – physicists have tried for decades to find a commercial use for the tremendous amount of heat released when hydrogen atoms are fused together.

If it’s feasible, and scalable, the technology pioneered by General Fusion, beyond replacing sooty coal plants, could also find a home generating steam for in situ oil sands projects that currently rely on natural gas. General Fusion vice-president of business development Michael Delage says the firm is trying to do something that no one has ever done: emulate the process that powers the sun to create a controlled “net gain” fusion reaction that creates more energy than is required to produce it. If it sounds at all fanciful, Delage and his colleagues are realistic about the experimental nature of developing a demonstration power generator. “It’s easy to let your head swim a bit if you think about the potential if this is successful,” Delage says.

There’s a good reason nuclear fusion, long hailed as the Holy Grail of alternative energy, has taken so long to develop commercially. Creating the conditions needed to induce a reaction is no easy task. Intense heat, in the range of 150 million degrees Celsius, is required to smash the hydrogen atoms together. The nuclei must also be packed together densely and for a long enough time for the collisions to occur, enough so that the energy created by the reaction is greater than the amount of energy invested in creating it; hence, the net gain.

To create those conditions, General Fusion is using a technique called “magnetized target fusion.” At a nondescript building in Burnaby, the company is testing a hybrid method of two existing approaches to fusion. The technique falls somewhere between a process under study at the $21.5-billion research project called the International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor based in the south of France and another technique under review in California. The complexity of recreating sun-like conditions in a controlled environment means success is anything but a given. “The odds of success are low, but the benefits are high,” Delage says.

Consider the upside. Inducing a fusion reaction involves assembling the right type of atoms, typically deuterium and tritium found in hydrogen, of which regular seawater is an abundant source. So the feedstock is vast. Fusion also emits no greenhouse gas emissions; the main byproduct is helium. Using just one liter of seawater as a fuel source for fusion is the equivalent to burning 500 liters of gasoline. Forty kilograms of deuterium could power a fusion plant for one year.

General Fusion is still tinkering with a demonstration project. The firm hopes to unveil a commercial prototype within a decade. The goal is to develop 100-megawatt power plants – about the smallest-scale reactor needed to achieve economies of scale because it could be manufactured in a cookie-cutter fashion.

For its part, Cenovus is watching General Fusion closely. The Calgary spinoff announced in June that it would accelerate production at its oil sands projects six-fold from targets set in 2010. The company is now targeting oil sands production of 400,000 barrels per day by the end of 2021. The bulk of the growth will occur at Foster Creek and Christina Lake, expected to account for two-thirds of the increased volumes, where Cenovus is also exploring the potential of a joint venture or farm-in deal.

Support for General Fusion was announced in conjunction with a $2.5-million investment in Vancouver-based Saltworks Technologies Inc., a specialist in water desalination using low-grade heat or waste heat recovered from power generation. As for fusion, the technology, although promising, remains a long shot. Hassan is optimistic. “We feel [General Fusion has] a chance of success,” he says.

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