Microsoft has signed an agreement with start-up Helion Energy to buy electricity from nuclear fusion in five years’ time.
Bill Gates’ Microsoft has become the first Big Tech company to sign a power purchase agreement with a nuclear fusion company.
Fusion is based on the same physical reactions that power the sun and stars, which create energy by forcing atoms together. It is the opposite of standard nuclear reactors which rely on fission, breaking atoms apart, and it produces zero carbon.
Fusion is hailed as a potential source of almost limitless clean energy, but is has proved very difficult to harness. However, amid rising energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis, it could become a safe and clean alternative source of energy that might become available in the not-too-distant future – or so Microsoft believes.
The company that will provide Microsoft with the clean electricity is Helion Energy, a start-up founded in 2013 and backed by Sam Altman, the founder of OpenAI, the company that has revolutionised artificial intelligence with its smart chatbot ChatGPT.
Helion’s plant is expected to be online by 2028, when it will target power generation of 50MW or greater after a one-year ramp-up period, it said.
“Fifty megawatts is a big first step of commercial-scale fusion, and the revenue feeds right back into us developing more power plants and getting fusion out on the grid both in the United States and internationally as fast as possible,” said the company’s CEO, David Kirtley.
Brad Smith, vice chair and president at Microsoft Corp, said that Helion’s work “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.”
Helion has so far raised more than $570m (£455m) in private capital, with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman providing $375m (£299m) in 2021.
The potential of fusion is “unbelievably huge,” Altman told CNBC. “If we can get this to work – if we can really deliver on the dream of abundant, cheap, safe, clean energy, that will transform society. It’s why I’ve been so passionate about this project for so long.”
In contrast to other fusion companies, which rely on tritium to help fuel reactions, Helion Energy is looking at using Helium 3. In 2021, the firm was the first private company to achieve 100 million degrees Celsius and the optimum temperature for fusion is about twice that, Kirtley said.
While Helion’s deal with Microsoft is to get 50MW online, the company eventually aims to produce a gigawatt of electricity, or 20 times what it hopes to deliver to Microsoft.
The companies did not disclose financial or timing details of the power purchase agreement, or which Microsoft facilities would get fusion-generated electricity.
Historically, fusion research has mostly been funded by public bodies. However, funding for commercial fusion projects more than doubled in 2022, with fusion companies raising more than $2.83bn (£2.39bn) in funding, an increase of 139 per cent from 2021, according to a recently published report by the Fusion Industry Association.
In December, scientists were able to produce more energy than was consumed during a fusion energy reaction for the first time, in what was described as a potentially major step in the pursuit of zero-carbon power.
In the UK, West Burton in North Nottinghamshire was selected last October as the future home for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) prototype fusion energy plant, which could become the world’s first prototype commercial nuclear reactor.
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