Fusion power by 2028? Microsoft is betting on it.

Source: By Evan Halper, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Microsoft inks deal with fusion start-up for electricity on a timeline that would be game-changing, if real. Scientists are skeptical.

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, joined from left by Arati Prabhakar, the president’s science adviser, and Marvin Adams, a defense programs deputy administrator, discusses a major scientific breakthrough in fusion research in Washington in December. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
A Washington state start-up backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital announced Wednesday that it expects to have a fusion power plant built within five years, betting on a vastly faster timeline for harnessing the potentially game-changing energy source than most experts think is plausible.

Helion Energy, where AI developer Sam Altman is the board chair and largest investor, signed a contract with tech giant Microsoft in what the firm says is the world’s first power purchase agreement involving fusion energy a potentially abundant, cheap and clean form of electricity that scientists have been trying to develop for decades.

Under the agreement, Helion says if it can’t provide the zero-emissions energy promised, it gets penalized. The fusion company declined to specify what those penalties would be or share a copy of the agreement.

“This is a real power purchase agreement,” said David Kirtley, Helion’s chief executive. “If we don’t deliver, there will be penalties for us.”

Still, the news is certain to touch off heated debate about whether this is a marketing move from an industry whose optimistic timelines have captured the imaginations and wallets of billionaires — or a legitimate quantum leap.

“Will it be possible for us to have a fusion reactor be capable of putting power on the grid?” said Robert Rosner, a professor of physics and astrophysics at University of Chicago. “The answer is yes. Do I think it will happen soon? No. My sense is it will be in the late 2030s to 2040.” He said Helion is advancing some of the most promising fusion technology, but it still has thorny challenges to deal with around making the fuel needed to create the fusion reaction and sustaining the reaction for long periods of time. Rosner is also skeptical of Helion’s projection that its fusion electricity will ultimately cost a tiny fraction the price of solar power.

Energy entrepreneurs have long been promoting the potential of fusion to provide a steady stream of clean electricity without any of the reliability issues that come with sourcing energy from the sun or the wind. Producing it, though, is an immense challenge. It requires smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and transforming the energy from that reaction into electricity that can power homes and offices without emitting carbon into the air or creating large amounts of radioactive waste. The process happens at temperatures above 100 million degrees Celsius, so hot that it typically destabilizes the equipment used to create the reaction.

The pursuit got a boost in December, when federal scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported they had achieved the first ever net energy gain, a key milestone for eventually creating electricity. The breakthrough involved billions of dollars of lasers and other space age equipment housed in a facility the size of a football stadium. The reaction lasted just a fraction of a second. Delivering electricity to the grid would require sustained pulses.

The scientists behind the government effort cautioned at the time that routing fusion energy onto the grid is decades away. The timeline they sketched out is so far into the future and uncertain that environmental groups warn fusion should not be counted on to slow global warming, as climate change could hit catastrophic levels by the time the technology comes online at a commercial scale.

Yet three dozen companies are pursuing their own plans for fusion power plants, and they argue technology advancements of the last few years means fusion power on an industrial scale can be brought online sooner. Many of them are not using lasers but magnets to produce the reaction, and they claim to have developed new techniques for creating the gases required for the reactions that make the process more efficient.

“There are 36 shots on goal right now, and the world only needs one of them to go in,” said Christofer Mowry, chief executive of the fusion start-up Type One Energy and chairman of the Fusion Industry Association. “Whether it is 10 or 15 or eight years, I am confident in that window we will see some of those shots make it.”

But even among these companies, Helion’s timeline seems a stretch. “It is great to be ambitious, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” said Mowry.

Helion is providing scant details about its power purchase agreement with Microsoft, withholding the price the tech company will pay for the power and the penalties that would fall on Helion if the power, presumably for one of Microsoft’s data centers, is not produced.

Helion has deep ties to Microsoft through its board chair, Sam Altman. Altman’s company, OpenAI, is crucial to the future of Microsoft, after it forged a multibillion-dollar, multiyear artificial intelligence development partnership with the tech giant earlier this year. Helion said in an email that Altman may have been involved in negotiating the fusion power agreement with Microsoft, but the deal has been in the works for years.

Microsoft is looking to fusion power to help it meet its goal of reducing its carbon footprint.

“We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in an email. “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.”

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is one of several billionaires investing in fusion energy, but Helion is not among the companies receiving financial backing from him or his organization, Breakthrough Energy.

This is not the first time Helion has set an ambitious goal. In 2015, the company said it would have a 50-megawatt pilot plant online within four years. That did not happen.

“When we made some of our initial timeline projections, they were based on assumptions of funding that ended up taking longer to secure than we originally thought it would,” Kirtley wrote in an email. He wrote that the company has since built six prototype units that “give us great confidence that our timeline is realistic and that we can build the first fusion power plant by 2028.”