Three months after committing to a $10 billion partnership with Sam Altman’s OpenAI, Microsoft signed a deal with another Altman-backed company, Helion, a startup aiming to build the world’s first fusion power plant far sooner than scientists think.
Under an agreement Helion announced today (May 10), Microsoft will purchase electricity from Helion’s future fusion power plant, expected to open in 2028. Helion has promised to provide at least 50 megawatts of electricity to Microsoft after its first year of operation or pay financial penalties. It didn’t disclose a specific amount, however.
Helion is based in Everett, Wash., only a 30-minute drive from Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Under the agreement, Helion will deliver power to some of Microsoft’s facilities in the area.
The deal is the first fusion power purchase agreement between two companies. It’s also a bold one because commercial fusion technology doesn’t exist yet and scientists predict it’s still years, even decades, away.
“We are extremely proud to have Microsoft as our first customer!” Helion cofounder and CEO David Kirtley said in a statement today. “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.”
What is nuclear fusion power and why is it so difficult?
Fusion is a form of nuclear reaction that powers the sun and stars. In a fusion process, two lighter atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, while releasing energy. An example would be two hydrogen atoms fusing to form one helium atom.
A fusion process generates huge amounts of energy several times that of a nuclear fission process, which releases energy by splitting atoms. Fission is a mature power-generating technology and provides nearly 20 percent of electricity in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy.
Because of its potential to provide unlimited, clean and cheap energy, fusion is hailed as the “holy grail” of carbon-free power.
Scientists have been pursuing efforts to replicate the fusion process in a lab since the 1950s. Colliding atoms together is much harder than splitting them, because it requires extremely high temperatures to overcome the mutual electrical repulsion between two atoms and bond them together. For example, fusing two hydrogen atoms requires at least 100 million Celsius, about six times the temperature in the core of the Sun, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
No person or company has successfully generated electricity from fusion on Earth yet. There are around 20 fusion reactors in the world, all striving to reach the extremely high temperatures needed for long enough to make fusion happen.
The IAEA estimates fusion power won’t be available until the second half of this century. But in December 2022, the Department of Energy announced a major breakthrough that scientists were for the first time able to produce a fusion reaction that creates a net energy gain, raising hopes that fusion power could arrive sooner.
Sam Altman is actively involved in Helion’s pursuit of commercial fusion power
Altman invested $375 million in Helion in November 2021 in a series E round that valued the startup at $2.5 billion, according to Crunchbase. He visits the company once a month and is actively involved in the company’s operations, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“I had this belief that the two things that would matter most to making the future and raising the quality of life a lot were making intelligence and energy cheap and abundant,” Altman told the publication in an interview today. “If we could do that, it would transform the world in a really positive way.”
Helion has an aggressive timeline to operate the world’s first fusion power plant by 2018. It is building a prototype to demonstrate the ability to produce electricity through fusion next year. “We think the physics of this is ready for us to signal the commercialization of fusion is ready,” CEO Kirtley told the Journal.
“We wouldn’t enter into this agreement if we were not optimistic that engineering advances are gaining momentum,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith.
Helion is hiring for more than 25 open positions across design, research, engineering and administrative functions, according to the company’s website.