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.

Peering into the D-Wave chip refrigerator

Peering into the D-Wave chip refrigerator

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.

Caption

A scaled-down, but still enormous, version of General Fusion’s piston-surrounded fusion chamber

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.”

More Posts About TED 2014



7 comments
Rick_Carter
Rick_Carter

I have already been so terribly angry at the thermonuclear industry for decades now, because I have personally known ever since the late 1960s that they have been taking the wrong road when it comes to the development of thermonuclear energy. I personally believe they could have been generating very significant quantities of fusion energy for decades already, and I personally believe it has been the political establishment which is controlled by the fossil fuel industries which has been steering them in this wrong direction. From the very beginning they should have been trying to develop fusion energy as a booster technology for other more conventional sources of energy, the most ideal ones being carbon neutral ones like solar, nuclear, or geothermal energy, instead of trying to develop it as a stand alone (i.e., self sustaining) fusion reaction system. Please understand that it is one of the foundational precepts of the world of physics that you can NOT create or destroy energy, you can only change it from one form into another. What this means is that whatever energy you inject into a (properly designed) thermonuclear core should be preserved (or still remain) there until you either take it out or otherwise allow it to escape, and it should still be available for the generation of electrical energy, if only in the form of heat. Please allow me to repeat myself, everyone, by restating that in a properly designed thermonuclear core, you DO NOT use up or expend ANY energy by trying to initiate a thermonuclear reaction, since ALL of that energy which you inject into that thermonuclear core should still reside there, if only in its lowest form of heat, and should still be available for the generation of electrical energy. This means that if you inject 100 megawatts of energy into a (properly designed) thermonuclear core, and only generate 50 megawatts of thermonuclear energy as a result, the total output of that (properly designed) thermonuclear core should be 150 megawatts of energy, even if it only resides there in the form of heat. When is someone in a position of responsibility inside of government going to finally listen before it is too late for our gravely endangered emerging human world ??? - Rick Carter

Rick_Carter
Rick_Carter

PS - Please understand, everyone, that there was a very simple way which was developed to generate electrical energy back in the 1960s, which was already close to 70% efficient at the time, because it uses NO MOVING PARTS to generate this electricity. It was actually designed to emulate the way that Mother Nature generates lightning in thunderclouds, and it is called low pressure condensation generation technology. You simply take low grade PURE steam (the temperature that most power companies simply throw away), and you add an electrical charge to these PURE steam particles, before directing this charged steam into an electrically isolated cold condensation chamber (probably cooled by cold ocean or cold river water, or else cold high altitude air), where it condenses and deposits its electrical charge. This in turn generates a vacuum which keeps drawing more steam into this electrically isolated cold condensation chamber. By this means electrons get pumped uphill, much like in a Van de Graaff generator, but without the use of a moving dielectric belt, and in most cases this electrical energy is already in the form most ideal for initiating more thermonuclear reactions. (This can also be used either as a primary or secondary means of generating electricity, which means that it could be used downstream from the standard (high grade) steam driven turbine generators.) - RC

Rick_Carter
Rick_Carter

I am completely, absolutely, beside myself FURIOUS about this, because we are effectively throwing away our ENTIRE PRECIOUS WORLD just to preserve the greedy monopoly of the fossil fuel industries !!! - RC

tymn
tymn

@Rick_Carter , do you have a reference for this low pressure condensation technology?  I did a brief google, and nothing turned up.


Rick_Carter
Rick_Carter

(Hint - The best dielectric gases are also excellent thermal conductors, too.) - RC

Rick_Carter
Rick_Carter

Stand alone, self sustaining fusion technology is NOT, repeat NOT, the only form of thermonuclear energy, it is simply the MOST EXOTIC form of thermonuclear energy, and this has NEVER been where we should have begun our quest for commercial thermonuclear energy !!! - RC

Rick_Carter
Rick_Carter

There is a HUGE LIE which has been told so many times over the years that most people simply regard it as the truth. The real truth is you DO NOT have to make thermonuclear energy self sustaining in order to generate very significant quantities of commercial fusion energy for our energy hungry world to use! - RC

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 309,296 other followers