Microsoft has signed a deal with Helion Energy, a clean energy company aiming to make fusion power a reality, to purchase power from Helion’s first fusion power plant.
This is a significant milestone for Helion, which has been developing fusion technology for over a decade and plans to demonstrate energy production capabilities with a seventh prototype in 2024. The fusion plant is expected to start generating 50 megawatts of clean electricity from 2028, producing near-waste electricity that energy company Constellation Energy will distribute.
Fusion has been an energy target for over 60 years because it produces little waste or radioactivity and is far less risky than fission. But the same processes in stars like our Sun are difficult to achieve, and the energy needed to control the reaction is more than it produces. Companies like Helion look to this response for potential rewards, and progress is slow and steady.
State-of-the-art attempts to generate electricity from nuclear fusion include irradiating a small target with a powerful laser beam and using a magnetic field to confine a superheated substance called plasma in a tokamak machine.
But Helion’s method differs from both. The company is developing a 12-meter plasma accelerator that heats fuel to 100 million degrees Celsius. Deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) and helium-3 are heated to form a plasma and smashed from both ends of the device at speeds exceeding 1.6 million kilometres per hour, compressing the plasma and causing nuclear fusion.
Helion claims the device should eventually be able to recover the electricity that triggers the reaction, which it could then use to recharge the device’s magnets.
Securing sufficient helium-3 fuel is another major challenge without a way to produce it commercially in large quantities. Helium-3 is a very rare isotope used in quantum computers and medical imaging. Helion intends to produce helium-3 through the use of a plasma accelerator. The fact that hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, can be used as fuel for nuclear fusion contributes to its appeal.
Even if Helion can accomplish this, it must do so cheaply. Consumer electricity generation must be comparable to or less expensive than current power, solar, and wind farms. Microsoft has not disclosed the price agreed upon in the power purchase agreement, but the company claims its objective is to bring the cost down to one cent per kilowatt-hour.
OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, is one of Helion’s investors. Altman is Helion’s chairman of the board and largest investor. He may have been involved in brokering a power purchase agreement between Helion and Microsoft.
Helion’s success will depend on achieving significant breakthroughs quickly and commercializing the technology to make it cost-competitive with other energy sources. Experts have various predictions about when the world’s first fusion power plant will be realized, ranging from 10 years to several decades.