Microsoft bets big on Sam Altman-backed Helion to deliver clean fusion energy by 2028

Unlike other businesses pushing clean nuclear energy, Helion is working on a "pulsed non-ignition fusion system."
Ameya Paleja
Representative image of a nuclear fusion reactor
Representative image of a nuclear fusion reactor.

Peter Hansen/iStock 

Microsoft Corporation has placed a big bet on Helion by agreeing to purchase power generated by its nuclear fusion process. Helion is also backed by Sam Altman, the OpenAI CEO with whom Microsoft is spearheading the artificial intelligence (AI) race.

Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of clean energy as it promises the generation of power without the emission of carbon or hassles of radioactive nuclear waste. As per a Reuters report, more than 30 companies and government labs are engaged in energy generation using the fusion process, but none have actually made major breakthroughs that could make the technology commercially viable.

In such a scenario, Microsoft's power purchase agreement is highly ambitious and likely comes with penalties for Helion if it does not deliver fusion-generated power by 2028. So, what makes Helion so confident of delivering commercial power in just about five years from now?

How Helion's attempts are different from others?

Most nuclear fusion companies rely on doughnut-shaped machines known as tokamaks which are surrounded by powerful magnets to carry out sustained nuclear fusion reactions. This is called ignition. Helion, however, is developing a "pulsed non-ignition fusion system," where the conditions need to be maintained for shorter periods of time.

At the core of the company's attempt is a plasma accelerator that uses powerful magnets to heat a gas mixture to an ultra-high temperature point, where it turns into plasma and is moved by magnets at a million miles to compress them and increase their temperature further for nuclear fusion to occur.

Microsoft bets big on Sam Altman-backed Helion to deliver clean fusion energy by 2028
Representative image of plasma inside a nuclear fusion reactor

Helion has reached a maximum of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million degrees Celsius), nearly half of the temperature required to carry out nuclear fusion and release energy. While other approaches rely on additional steps, such as heating water to generate electricity, Helion can do so directly, MIT Technology Review reported.

Helion uses the plasma's magnetic field to generate an electric current from adjacent electromagnetic coils in its reactor to harvest electricity directly. Currently, the energy is being used to power up the magnets for their next pulse. Still, eventually, the company would have to generate enough electricity to power many households in addition to the magnets to be commercially viable.

Since only one organization has declared this net gain where the fusion reactor has generated more energy than was required to get it to work, nuclear fusion projects are still a dream. But Helion is confident that it will achieve this in the next five years.

That's a big ask since its latest reactor prototype, Polaris, is still under construction, and it would need to get the necessary regulatory approvals before it begins supplying energy to Microsoft in 2028.

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