HOT STUFF: An engineering drawing shows Helion’s truck-size 50-megawatt generator, which produces fusion energy, the same type of energy produced by the sun.
As a fuel of the future, nuclear energy isn’t doing too well these days. Between low prices for natural gas as an electricity generating fuel, the fascination with renewables, the history of huge cost overruns for nuclear projects (hello, WPPSS), the nagging issue of what you do with spent (but still radioactive) fuel and the legacies of accidents like Fukushima Daiichi, there’s little public appetite for taking on the years of hassles and billions of dollars for new capacity. In fact, a few American utilities have canceled nuclear projects, even though construction was well underway.
But that’s what’s going on with nuclear fission, the production of energy by breaking apart the atomic bonds holding molecules together. As it happens, there’s another form of nuclear energy: fusion. “It’s how the sun works,” says David Kirtley, CEO of Helion Energy in Redmond. “Most of the universe is powered by fusion.”
Proponents believe fusion can be put to work here on Earth to eliminate a lot of the problems associated with fission, if they can unsnarl the knotty problem of scaling down fusion reactors to a size and cost that’s practical and affordable for generating electricity.
Helion Energy believes it’s making progress in this arena by building the latest in a series of prototype generators, what it describes as a full-scale, break-even-or-better (meaning more energy is released than the process uses) model, to be ready this year. It has raised enough capital to get it through that stage, Kirtley says, and recently brought on its 24th employee.
The goal, he adds, is “to be the first to build commercial fusion power plants.”
Those plants won’t be deployed as utility-scale generating stations. Helion’s commercial strategy is to build fusion reactors in Washington, with capacity of about 50 megawatts, and deploy them at industrial facilities. (For purposes of comparison, Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station in Richland, a fission reactor, has a capacity of 1,190 megawatts, which it says is roughly equivalent to the consumption of the city of Seattle).
Helion hopes that building smaller fusion reactors for industrial customers will allow it to avoid the delays that arise when dealing with an electric utility industry known for the slow pace of change in adopting a new technology and feeling a bit burned lately by nuclear power.
Fission works by taking a heavy molecule such as uranium or plutonium and breaking it by splitting it. Energy is released in the form of radiation and heat, the latter being used to boil water to drive a generating turbine.
In Helion’s approach to fusion, lightweight isotopes such as hydrogen or helium can be fused under intense heat and pressure. The fusion releases charged particles, which induce a current in a wire coil.
Kirtley says the advantages are as abundant as the available energy. Fusion releases 80 percent of its energy as charged particles, so it’s highly efficient. “It’s safe, it doesn’t melt down, you can’t make weapons out of that stuff, all that goes away,” he says. “It’s clean. It doesn’t generate carbon dioxide or radioactive waste.”
The fuel is also comparatively inexpensive, plentiful and long-lasting. And it can all be done in units the size of a semi-trailer.
But if fusion is so great, where has it been all our lives?
“The approaches we’ve taken in the past are hugely complex,” Kirtley explains. “There’s been no real commercialization path.”
Fusion isn’t a new technology. Kirtley says researchers have been playing with fusion engines for decades. “We know how they work, the physics that drives those, we know how to build them but we also know how big they are,” he says. “They’re huge, in both physical scale and the power output,” measured in gigawatts. The capital costs are gargantuan, too, and the design cycles can run to decades.
The breakthrough, he adds, has been an evolutionary one in the development of the controls needed to manipulate the magnetic fields to the temperatures (millions of degrees) and pressures in which fusion happens. Those controls reduced the scale of projects from gigawatts to megawatts and development times from decades to years.
Other companies are also looking at fusion as the next big thing in power generation. On the West Coast, General Fusion in Burnaby, British Columbia, is using an approach that includes heat transfer to drive a turbine. Tri Alpha Energy in Foothill Ranch, California, which bills itself as “the world’s largest private fusion company,” is aiming for utility-scale fusion.
Helion — a name derived from a term for the nucleus of a helium atom — grew from research at the University of Washington. Launched with $5 million in federal research funds, it has since raised more money from such private sources as Mithril Capital Management and Y Combinator. Kirtley says the $30 million raised in the past three years will be enough to get Helion through the debut of its 50-megwatt break-even prototype.
But what then? Why would industrial customers want to mess with a new, unproven technology when a known technology — gas-fired turbines using a cheap and plentiful fuel — is easily deployable?
“We believe we can compete at scale on price with even low-cost natural gas,” Kirtley declares. “Our fuel costs are negligible and we can operate without a gas supply chain. As a side bonus, fusion doesn’t create greenhouse gases, doesn’t have the geopolitical concerns of natural gas and can provide DC power.”
The knock on fusion, Kirtley says, is that it’s been a “20-years-away technology” for 50 years. If Helion Energy can make good on its strategic goals, it might be able to shave some time off the gap between now — when fusion-generated electricity is the stuff of futuristic conjecture — and the day when fusion is producing power that someone is using.