Fusion energy startup Helion Energy has announced the signing of a landmark agreement with digital giant Microsoft. The new facility should provide at least 50 MW of power and start generating electricity by 2028, significantly shortening the time frame for commercially viable fusion power. But is it really feasible?
Many experts believe that fusion energy is still decades away from being used for the benefit of all. The technology is far from perfect and mastered, and its commercialization even less so.
Microsoft, contrary to popular belief, is making a huge stake in the technology, having signed the first commercial agreement for fusion energy. The tech giant has agreed to buy power for five years from startup Helion Energy, a private clean energy company seeking to create a new era of carbon-free electricity. It's worth noting that it's backed by Microsoft business partner Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI.
Not only does the deal move the timeline for bringing commercial fusion power online, but Microsoft is also trying to meet its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, an important goal in developing energy-intensive artificial intelligence in a world in crisis.
The power plant is expected to be operational by 2028, generating 50 MW or more after a one-year ramp-up period. The planned launch date for this first-of-a-kind plant is much earlier than typical projections for commercial fusion power, and raises concerns that the plant will face serious financial penalties if the deal is not met. Microsoft doesn't make bets without substantial guarantees and assurances!
A historic step for fusion and a powerful hope for the climate
The creation of a commercial fusion plant is a critical step in the transition to a sustainable energy future and the development of a new source of clean energy for the world.
David Kirtley, CEO of Helion, said in a statement, "This collaboration represents an important milestone for Helion and the fusion industry as a whole. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are confident in our ability to build the world's first fusion power plant."
Helion has been perfecting its fusion technology for more than a decade. The company has already built six working prototypes and became the first private fusion company to reach a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees on its sixth prototype. The company is currently building a seventh prototype, which is expected to demonstrate its ability to generate electricity in 2024.
Brad Smith, vice president and president of Microsoft, said: "We believe fusion energy could be an important technology to help the global transition to clean energy. The announcement of Helion [...] will advance the market by creating a new and efficient way to bring clean energy to the grid faster. And, above all, eliminate the major drawback of our current fission-based nuclear power plants - the generation of radioactive waste for millions of years."
Fusion produces no long-lived radioactive waste, only tritium with a half-life of 12 years (compared to 24,000 years for fission waste). And when tritium decays, it turns into helium-3, which is reused as fusion fuel.
Unique fusion for an unprecedented agreement
Fusion occurs when two atoms combine into one atom, releasing energy. This is the process used by our Sun and other stars to produce energy.
Helion's unique pulsed thermonuclear device, without ignition, will produce carbon-free electricity from deuterium and helium-3. This is made possible by combining modern power electronics with work done by scientists and engineers since the 1950s.
The general principle is that the Helion plasma gas pedal will heat fusion fuel to 100 million degrees Celsius and directly extract electricity using a highly efficient pulsed approach.
Specifically, the deuterium and helium-3 fuel is heated under plasma conditions. Magnets hold this plasma in a reverse field configuration (RFC). It should be noted that RFP plasma, when the current exceeds a certain threshold value, spontaneously organizes itself in a spiral shape. The movement of the particles creates an internal magnetic field, inverted with respect to the external field, which self-configures the plasma.
The magnets accelerate the two FRCs, each at opposite ends of the reactor, to speeds of over 1.6 million km/h. They collide in the center. During this collision, the particles are further compressed by the strong magnetic field until they reach a melting point of 100 million degrees Celsius.
At this temperature, the deuterium and helium-3 ions move fast enough to overcome the forces that would otherwise keep them apart, and they fuse. More energy is released than is expended in the fusion process. As new fusion energy is released, the plasma expands.
As the plasma expands, it repels the magnetic field. This change in the field causes a current that is directly recovered as electricity. This is a marked difference from other fusion systems, which heat water to create steam for the turbine to spin to generate electricity in a process with high energy losses.
As with nuclear fission, plans, promises and commitments in words do not make the technology work in practice. So we will have to wait to see the reality of nuclear fusion stars in our electrical appliances!
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