Microsoft inked a deal to buy electricity from Helion Energy’s fusion nuclear plant starting in 2028. Repeat that! No need except to say that fusion is always around the corner but perpetually off-limits. Once the plant comes online in 2028, it will generate 50 megawatts of electricity, although it will scale up. Microsoft’s goal is to be carbon negative by 2030.
National and international scientists want to recreate this process – harnessing the sun’s power – in the labs. It has been done, albeit with much difficulty. But the United States is allocating billions of dollars to solve the science.
“This collaboration represents a significant milestone for Helion and the fusion industry as a whole,” said David Kirtley, chief executive at Helion, in a release. “We are grateful for the support of a visionary company like Microsoft. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are confident in our ability to deliver the world’s first fusion power facility.”
He says Helion has previously built six working prototypes and was the first private fusion company to reach 100-million-degree plasma temperatures with its sixth fusion prototype. The company is building its seventh prototype – a project aimed at demonstrating the ability to produce electricity from nuclear fusion in 2024.
Fusion, which powers the sun and stars, has long been considered the Holy Grail of energy production. Fusion can provide a nearly limitless energy source without producing harmful carbon emissions or long-lived waste. The world’s first commercial facility would mark the dawn of a new era of energy.
Fusion differs from fission, which is how today’s nuclear reactor produces energy. Fission splits atoms apart, whereas fusion combines them – a process that thus far consumes more power than it generates. The aim is to heat the hydrogen gas to more than 100 million degrees Celsius so that the atoms will bond instead of bounce off each other.
If scientists can succeed, the result would be producing 10 million times more power than a typical chemical reaction, such as burning fossil fuels. And it would occur without carbon emissions or the disposal of high-level radioactive waste.
“We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy,” said Brad Smith, Vice Chair and President at Microsoft. “Helion’s announcement supports our own long-term clean energy goals and will advance the market to establish a new, efficient method for bringing more clean energy to the grid, faster.”
Looks Good on Paper, but …
Microsoft has long been interested in nuclear fusion. It has backed TAE Technologies, which uses Google’s algorithms to better mold plasma at the fusion technology’s core. Meantime, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works fusion program is another privately-held venture. Its project is smaller, but the company says it can handle temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees that can be released in a controlled fashion.
The most well-known is ITER, or the International Nuclear Fusion Project: It is a partnership among the Europe Union’s member states, the United States, Russia, China, India, and South Korea, to get a fusion demonstration project running in France. Many billions have gone into that research and development. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is also researching and trying to figure out how to keep reactor temperatures low while nuclear reactions occur in hot plasma.
However, the central question is whether the process can yield enough heat to fuse those atoms permanently. If so, can it get commercialized? “On paper, it looks awesome, but when you get down to practicalities, it is beyond our capabilities,” John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance, previously told this writer.
Last December, researchers at the National Ignition Facility in California created enough heat to fuse atoms. It happened in the labs. But it – nonetheless – occurred. Does that mean Helion will deliver nuclear fusion power to Microsoft in five years? That’s still a long shot. But it may do it by 2050.