Image: AP Photo Ted S. Warren, File
The future of clean energy is arriving ahead of schedule, at least according to an announcement today from computing giant Microsoft. In a new partnership with fusion energy company Helion Energy, Microsoft has signed on to purchase electricity from Helion’s first-ever fusion power plant. The company says that the fusion plant is slated to begin producing 50 megawatts of clean starting in 2028, generating nearly waste-free electricity that would be distributed by energy company Constellation.
This energy would be enough to power 40,000 homes and could help Microsoft reach its goal to be carbon negative by 2030. To date, Helion has demonstrated fusion temperature and expects its latest prototype, Polaris, will demonstrate electricity generation by 2024.“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 in a press release. “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.”This partnership would also be a huge accomplishment for Helion and would put the energy company leaps and bounds ahead of its peers –including the US government– in the fusion space which are only just beginning to announce milestone achievements in their reactors. And even with these milestones, experts are still predicting a true fusion era to be at least twenty years away (as it has been for at least the past twenty years).
But these luke-warm predictions aren’t stopping Helion founder and CEO, David Kirtley, from dreaming bigger. Part of what Kirtley thinks will make this possible, he told Motherboard, is that Helion’s approach is a departure from traditional fusion approaches.“There's several types of fusion and what Helion does is a third type called magneto inertial fusion,” Kirtley said. “Which is a combination of the steady magnetic fusion and a pulsed approach with lasers, but what we do is pulsed magnetic fusion where we use magnetic fields to compress and heat fusion fuel.”Instead of placing their fusion fuel in a Tokamaks—donut-shaped magnetic chambers—or into a small chamber to be pelted with high-powered lasers, Helion’s hybrid approach instead works by using a plasma accelerator. This reactor won’t be able to generate the same amount of energy as larger scale fusion projects like the US’s National Ignition Facility or France’s ITER, but its simplicity may help it reach customers more quickly, Kirtley said.For their reactor, Helion starts with hydrogen isotope deuterium and helium-3 that are both heated to plasma conditions in separate chambers of the accelerator and held in a specific magnetic state called field reversed configuration. These plasmas are then accelerated towards each other and compressed in a shared center chamber to 100 million degrees Celsius to achieve fusion.
This fused fuel then expands and pushes back against the magnets in the chamber to generate a current which is recaptured as electricity. This last step is a crucial departure from other fusion approaches which have continued to mimic the steam-turbine model of nuclear fission power plants to generate electricity.“We don't have lots of complex and expensive steam turbines, so our systems can be smaller,” Kirtley said. “We can build them faster and we can iterate on them.”To reach their 2028 goal, Helion is planning to role out its 7th generation reactor, Polaris, which the firm says will not only achieve net electricity generation but will also create its own helium-3—a fusion resource that is famously so difficult to find that we’re looking for it on the moon—through deuterium-deuterium fusion. This isn’t the first time that Helion has set a deadline and missed it. In 2014, Kirtley said Helion would achieve commercial fusion in three years. But Kirtley is confident things will go smoother this time around.“We are transitioning away from an era where fusion was a physics experiment to now beginning to build commercial systems and take advantage of all the work we have done,” Kirtley said. “Our approach to Fusion does a couple of really key things that we think accelerates timelines a lot… we think this first power purchase agreement for fusion is a signal to everyone that fusion electricity and commercialization of fusion is coming.”