At Helion Energy, the company’s tagline is “First to Fusion,” and now the 2013-founded company may be making good on that promise, with a newly inked deal with its first customer, Microsoft, to provide the tech giant with fusion energy by 2028. Constellation, the nation’s largest producer of carbon-free energy, will serve as the power marketer and will manage the transmission for the project.
Not only is this a milestone for Helion, the company’s co-founder and CEO David Kirtley, wrote in a letter about the announcement, but it’s a significant milestone for the fusion industry as a whole.
Fusion, aka the energy of the sun, is famously the holy grail of power that “is always 50 years away,” and for a long time, scientists have been wishing on shooting stars to make it happen.
Nuclear fusion makes all the promises of its cousin nuclear fission but without the risks of radioactive waste. Completely zero-emission, fusion for a long time seemed like a pipe dream, especially because until fusion’s “holy sh*t” moment closing out 2022, reactors were unable to produce more energy than they consumed.
But that all changed last December, and a series of major wins leading up to that moment have hinted at real viability, including the return of the Tokamak and the dawn of several other types of fusion reactors, major venture capital put behind startups, billionaires betting on fusion, and paradigm-shifting federal and state-level investment.
At the heart of Helion’s process is an element known as deuterium (D2O), a form of hydrogen found in water. One glass of D20 can replace 10 million pounds of coal, one million gallons of oil, or can power one single home for 865 years.
Now the potentially world-changing over 70-year-old concept is seeing another breakthrough, with what Helion Energy calls the very first power purchase agreement of its kind.
“With this partnership, not only are we advancing the timeline to have commercial fusion energy on the grid, but we are also supporting Microsoft’s goal to be carbon negative by 2030,” Kirtley wrote.
“With a long history of unveiling groundbreaking technology while considering their impacts on the climate, Microsoft is the ideal customer for electricity from our first fusion power plant.”
Could fusion power the 'brains' of the internet?
In 2021, when Washington-based Helion received an astronomical amount of money to advance its reactor ($2.2 billion with a B to be exact), Kirtley predicted that its first customers would be data centers which are extremely power-hungry.
As the brains of the internet, some of the world’s largest data centers can each contain tens of thousands of IT devices, requiring more than 100 megawatts (MW) of power capacity—enough to power around 80,000 U.S. households.
And Microsoft has over a dozen data centers dotting the entire globe.
Because many data centers use backup generators, Helion can power whole data centers as the default data source, and “get electricity costs down to a cent per kilowatt-hour,” Kirtley told TechCrunch in 2021.
“You can completely change how data centers work, and you can really start answering climate change. Our focus is making low-cost and carbon-free electricity.”
Helion says the new facility will deliver at least 50 MW of power, with room to ramp up after the first year. Most data centers produce 1 MW per square meter.
The Microsoft deal and the path to commercialization
“We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy,” Brad Smith, president at Microsoft, said in a statement. “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.”
While Helion’s deal with Microsoft is to get 50 MW online, the company has an ultimate goal to produce a gigawatt of electricity, or one billion watts, which is 20 million times the 50 MW it is selling to Microsoft.
And there will be consequences if Helion can’t deliver on those 50 MW.
“This is a real PPA, so there’s financial penalties if Helion can’t deliver power. So we’ve really put our skin in the game on this too — that we believe we can deliver this power and are committed to it with our own financial incentives,” Kirtley told CNBC.
If they deliver, there will be no doubt that fusion is on the path to scalable commercialization.
Helion and Microsoft have a longstanding relationship, with the Microsoft team being interested since at least Helion’s last three prototypes. With a portfolio of hydrogen, nuclear, and various renewables, Microsoft has issued lofty investments in carbon-free energy to match its lofty clean energy goals.
“There is no doubt 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,” Kirtley said. With all that work the Helion team will need extra muscle. Currently, at 150 employees, Kirtley said there will be 25+ new positions at Helion at all levels.
For Helion, there’s still lots to achieve on the to-do list. Not only does the company have to pick a location for the facility within Washington State, but Kirtley says they want to get a head start on working with communities involved and tie up any loose ends on the regulatory front.
When getting new power on the grid can take years, as the U.S. is vastly in need of permit reform for transmission lines, Helion has its work over the next five years laid out for them. Luckily, Helion is working with the nearly three-decade-old company Constellation, which already operates in 48 states to secure its transmission needs.
Can Helion's plasma laser reactor be viable in the next 5 years?
So assuming everything goes smoothly facility and regulation-wise, how is Helion planning on getting Microsoft those 50 MW and how are they able to do it so soon?
Helion uses a narrow device called Field Reversed Configuration and the secret ingredient is a mega-rare element called helium-3.
Instead of utilizing the traditional tokamak, a donut-shaped device that is the best-known fusion system popularized by the international fusion project ITER, Helion went a totally different route.
Where companies like FootPrint Coaltion-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) use a revolutionary magnet technology they believe is the “surest way” of producing fusion, Helion shoots plasma from both ends of a device, soaring like a shooting star at a velocity of one million miles per hour. When the two lasers of power crash into each other, they bring the power of the stars down to Earth and fusion occurs.
The fusion machine that will provide energy to Microsoft is Helion’s 7th iteration. With the past prototypes, Helion has been able to achieve fusion but has not yet repeated the success of researchers at the U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF) who were able to generate more energy than their device consumed last year. Like CFS, the NIF uses magnets, which for comparison to Helion’s ambitious timeline, CFS plans to have its first power plant on the grid and sell electricity by the early 2030s.
Already, Helion has achieved some significant hurdles, providing stamina to clear the hurdles of its enthusiastic target, one of which is its ability to make its very own helium-3, a super rare element that is like regular helium but with an extra neutron. Helium-3 is the product of fusing deuterium atoms, which according to Helion, the Earth’s oceans contain enough deuterium to generate billions of years worth of zero-carbon fusion energy.
Helium-3 is already used in quantum computing and critical medical imaging but is very hard to access on Earth, as its main source is in the mantle, and much of it lingers in volcanic hotspots. Plus, historically, Helium-3 is so difficult to produce that scientists have even discussed going to the MOON just to mine it.
But with Helion’s patented process, they can produce helium-3 with no space, volcano, or deep ocean travel needed. Helion’s approach was theorized back in the ‘50s, but without modern transistors of computers, scientists couldn’t test their hypothesis.
Helion is the first company to make helium-3 in an industrial process. Making its own helium-3 has opened some significant doors for the fusion company.
In 2018, Helion achieved the highest-ever recorded fusion output by any private or plasma fusion company with their 5th-generation prototype, Venti. And in 2020, Trenta, its 6th generation prototype demonstrated the largest and “most energetic” high-beta (the unit to measure plasma) of any fusion plasmas ever created.
The company also makes its own capacitors, which are like ultra-efficient superbatteries, jumping over the big hurdle of costs, which makes a lot of other fusion projects come with a hefty price tag.
If Helion is successful, Helion could be a leading light for fusion, signaling that other viable systems may not be far behind. Rather than one shooting star, there could be an entire meteor shower of successes.
By next year, the 7th generation fusion machine, named Polaris, will be able to produce fusion, Kirtley said, and Helion will enter a new post-prototype era.
“This really signals that a fusion era is coming. And we’re all very excited about it,” Kirtley said.