Microsoft bets that a fusion power plant from Helion Energy will be operating this decade
- Microsoft agreed to buy electricity from a fusion power plant being developed by Helion Energy.
- Helion said the plant will be online by 2028, sooner than scientists thought fusion would be viable.
- Fusion energy doesn't produce the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling the climate crisis.
The timeline for pumping fusion energy into the power grid might be closer than many believed.
Microsoft on Wednesday agreed to buy 50 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 40,000 homes — from a fusion power plant being developed by Helion Energy. The startup's plant is expected to come online by 2028.
Fusion, a process that occurs naturally in the sun and stars, is considered the holy grail of energy production because it could be a nearly limitless source of power without creating greenhouse-gas emissions, which are fueling the climate crisis.
Scientists have long been trying to harness fusion energy, with some predicting that it won't be a viable power source for decades. Researchers had a breakthrough in December, when federal scientists in California reported they achieved the first net energy gain — a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it takes to create. But so far, the lab hasn't replicated the results, Bloomberg reported.
David Kirtley, the founder and CEO of Helion, told Insider that he's confident in the startup's 2028 target for several reasons. All six of Helion's fusion prototypes have set records for their energy output and the temperature at which they operate, recently exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius — an ideal threshold for a power plant. The seventh prototype, expected be completed this year, is set to be the first to convert fusion energy into electricity, Kirtley said.
"Helion is focused on doing fusion in a way that gets us close to electricity, rather than just energy in a generic sense," he said.
"One analogy I use is regenerative braking in electric cars," he added. "When you hit the gas, it takes energy from the battery and puts it into the motor. When you hit the brakes, that energy returns to the battery. That's what we do for fusion. We have energy in storage, we put it into the fusion reaction, and then we extract that back out directly."
Helion's novel approach to fusion involves injecting deuterium and helium-3 gas into a cylinder-shaped machine that heats up the gas up to form charged plasma on each side of the machine. These plasmas are then accelerated and compressed by an electromagnetic field until they collide to create a reaction.
Beyond the technology, Kirtley said that as of April, the regulatory environment was more certain. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would use an existing framework to oversee the safety of fusion reactors and power plants. It opted not to impose the stricter rules applied to nuclear reactors. Fusion, unlike nuclear fission, doesn't come with concerns about radioactive waste or the proliferation of weapons.
"That means we should be able to build fusion systems much quicker, operate them safely — and at a lower cost," Kirtley said.
Still, building a first-of-its-kind power plant in five years is a major challenge.
Kirtley said that's why the deal with Microsoft and the transmission operator Constellation was so important. Constellation is experienced at building power plants quickly, and Microsoft is one of the largest corporate purchasers of renewable energy. The tech giant aims for 100% of its electricity consumption by 2030 to be matched by zero-carbon purchases.
If Helion doesn't deliver Microsoft the 50 MW of electricity from its fusion power plant, there will be financial penalties, Kirtley said. He declined to disclose more specifics about the agreement.
Helion had previously projected that it would start building a commercial fusion power plant by 2022 — if it obtained sufficient funding. That target got pushed back because it took longer to get the funds, a spokesman told Insider.
Helion has since secured what it needs, including a $500 million fundraising round last year led by Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and Helion's largest investor.
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