U.S. nuclear fusion company Helion Energy will supply Microsoft with electricity within about five years, the companies said on Wednesday, in the first deal of its kind for the energy source that powers the sun but has posed a challenge of be reproduced by man.
Fusion occurs when two light atoms, such as hydrogen, heated to extreme temperatures, fuse into a heavier atom, releasing large amounts of energy. Until now, fusion reactions carried out in the laboratory were momentary and consume more energy than they release. But companies in the industry have raised about $5 billion in private research and development funding to make the merger a commercial reality.
The expectation is that the Helion plant will be in operation in 2028. The installation will aim to generate 50 megawatts or more after a period of one year. One megawatt can power about 1,000 homes in the United States on a typical day.
“Fifty megawatts is a big first step towards commercial-scale fusion, and the revenue generated feeds back the development of more power plants,” said David Kirtley, founder and chief executive of Helion.
The Polaris reactor, Helion’s seventh-generation machine, is expected to come online next year and demonstrate electricity generation, using a mix of laser and magnetism technologies to achieve fusion, Kirtley said. In 2021, Helion was the first private company to hit 100 million degrees Celsius, while the ideal temperature is about double that, Kirtley said.
While many fusion companies look to tritium, a rare isotope of hydrogen, to help the reaction, Helion plans to use helium 3, a rare type of gas also used in quantum computing.
So far, the company has raised more than $570 million in private equity with OpenAI Chief Executive Sam Altman providing $375 million in 2021.
The companies did not disclose the terms of the energy purchase agreement.
Helion still needs design and construction approvals from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as well as local permits. The fusion industry applauded the NRC’s decision last month to separate regulation of fusion from fission, a move that backers of the technology say could shorten license approval times.
“The business world is starting to understand that the merger is coming and perhaps sooner than many people thought,” said Andrew Holland, director of the Merger Industry Association. “It’s a vote of confidence that Helion is on track as other companies are working on proof of concept for their machines.”
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