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Fusion research gets a $500M boost at Helion

Helion is revving up its quest to commercialize nuclear fusion power with a $500 million funding round led by tech investor Sam Altman.

Altman, who’s the CEO of OpenAI and the former president of the Y Combinator startup accelerator, will help raise another $1.7 billion if Helion reaches key milestones on the way to producing a net electricity gain by 2024.

Fusion power takes advantage of the nuclear chain reaction that takes place in the sun, unleashing massive amounts of energy in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. The process is more energetic and potentially less polluting than the more familiar type of nuclear power, produced in fission reactors.

“I’m delighted to be investing more in Helion, which is by far the most promising approach to fusion I’ve ever seen,” Altman, who serves as Helion’s executive chairman, said today in a news release. “With a tiny fraction of the money spent on other fusion efforts, and the culture of a startup, this team has a clear path to net electricity. If Helion is successful, we can avert climate disaster and provide a much better quality of life for people.”

Altman, who has been investing in Helion since 2015, is reportedly putting in $375 million of his own money for this round. “This is the biggest investment I’ve ever made,” he told CNBC. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital and Capricorn Investment Group also added to their previous investments.

The cash infusion will help Helion build its seventh-generation fusion generator, dubbed Polaris, at the company’s headquarters in Everett, Wash. This June, the Helion team published results showing that it could ramp up the temperature of plasma to 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit). That’s a significant step toward temperatures of 200 million degrees C or even hotter, which would be required for the type of reaction Helion is targeting.

Helion broke ground on the Polaris facility in June with Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials in attendance.

“This funding ensures that Helion will be the first organization to generate electricity from fusion,” said David Kirtley, Helion’s founder and CEO. “Our sixth prototype demonstrated that we can reach this pivotal milestone. In just a few years we will show that the world can count on fusion to be the zero-carbon energy source that we desperately need.”

Helion’s engineers aren’t the only ones trying to harness fusion power.

There’s also California-based TAE Technologies, which has raised $880 million in investment (including early funding from the late tech billionaire Paul Allen) and aims to achieve fusion conditions by 2025. There’s General Fusion, a Canadian venture that numbers Jeff Bezos among its backers and plans to start building a demonstration power plant in Britain next year. There’s Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has drawn investment from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other big-name funds. And there are plenty of other players, such as Seattle-based Zap Energy.

Government-backed fusion research projects include Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility Sandia National Laboratories’ Z Pulsed Power Facility the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Max Planck Institute’s Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Germany.

The biggest fusion development effort is ITER, an international collaboration that’s sponsored by the European Union and other nations including the United States. ITER’s massive test reactor is under construction in France, with first plasma scheduled for 2025. The cost of the project is estimated at $22 billion, but U.S. officials have said the actual cost could run as high as $65 billion.

ITER is following a mainstream, tried-and-true approach to controlled nuclear fusion, involving deuterium-tritium fuel and a type of containment vessel known as a tokamak. Helion, in contrast, envisions using an accelerator to smash “bullets” of deuterium and helium-3 plasma together with enough force to achieve fusion. That type of reaction doesn’t produce the level of neutron flux that deuterium and tritium would — which makes for a much cleaner power-generating process — but it also requires much higher temperatures.

How Helion's fusion process works
How Helion’s process works. Click on the image for a larger version.

Deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron as well as a proton in its nucleus, can be extracted from seawater. The helium-3 isotope can be produced on Earth, but some have cited the abundance of helium-3 on the moon as a motivation for lunar exploration.

Helion’s pulsed-power system is notable in that it’s designed to generate electricity directly, rather than relying on a turbine. That could accelerate progress toward commercialization, once the reaction works the way Helion hopes it will. To get there, Helion’s engineers will have to figure out how to ramp up the temperature and the pulse rate.

Even if controlled fusion can be perfected, it’s debatable how much it will contribute to a power mix that also includes fossil fuels, next-generation nuclear fission and battery-enabled renewable power sources such as solar and wind.

For decades, energy experts have been calling fusion the revolutionary power source that will always be decades away. If Helion hits its hoped-for schedule, 2024 could at last be the breakout year for fusion technology. But it’s risky to make predictions about timetables, particularly on a three-year basis: Kirtley himself demonstrated that back in 2014, when he told The Wall Street Journal that Helion hoped to reach the goal of net energy gain by 2017 “if our physics hold.”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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