Man Holding Atom Particle Between His Fingers

Fusion power startup Helion Energy has pledged to supply Microsoft with 50 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity before 2030 or pay financial penalties.

The commitment is startling, in large part because—despite a half-century of engineering—fusion energy has yet to demonstrate the ability to sustain any production of electricity.

Helion’s plant will come online in 2028 and be putting out 50 MWh of power within a year, the company has said.

The company will “demonstrate the ability to produce electricity” some time next year with the seventh version of its prototype “Polaris” reactor, which leaves it only four years to build a commercial fusion reactor and produce the amount of electricity it’s promised Microsoft.

Helion is aiming at a retail price around $10 per MWh, compared to a median $36 from coal-fired generation plants and $24 from solar panels.

The “financial penalties” it will owe if it fails were not disclosed.

Fusion reactors try to create energy by pushing hydrogen atoms together with force strong enough to make them fuse. When they fuse, massive energy is released.

The hydrogen atoms are held in a gas plasma and the force is applied by massive, powerful electromagnets.

In typical fusion schemes, the energy resulting from fusion would be used to make steam to spin turbines.

In contrast, Helion’s design creates electricity directly, the company claims.

The design smashes hydrogen and helium isotopes together, which releases energy and expands the plasma. The expanded plasma’s magnetic characteristics “push back” against the fusion chamber’s magnetic field, Helion says, and that interaction creates an electric current directly.

Other fusion energy startups have proposed other alternatives to the conventional approaches, as we reported in articles such as “Will This New Fusion Technology Finally Work?” (3 May 2022) and “Fusion Engineers Try Again” (13 Sep 2022).

Commonwealth Fusion Systems, using a technology developed at MIT, has targeted “the early 2030s” as the time its SPARC reactor will supply power to the grid. TAE Technologies will debut a working prototype of its Da Vinci reactor around the same time. 

Zap Energy has found a way to generate the needed magnetic field inside the plasma itself, instead of from outside, and hopes to demonstrate net energy production before 2026.

Helion, based in Everett, WA, is backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel; Jeff Skoll, former eBay president; and Dustin Moskovitz, who co-founded Facebook, among others.

Its most notable investor is Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, who has become chair of Helion’s board and reportedly has sunk $375 million of his own money into the company.

Microsoft holds a multi-billion-dollar investment in OpenAI.

The coil assembly for Helion’s fusion reactor, which the company says will yield commercial power in about five years.

TRENDPOST: Conventional fusion reactors that have been under constant construction and refinement for more than 50 years have, so far, been a bust.

The reactors have never generated a net energy gain—a key promise—and have never sustained a reaction for more than a minute or two.

New technologies from various startups such as Australia’s HB11 and those noted above have scrapped much of the old designs and now have a chance to prove that fusion might be affordable at a commercial scale—but, along with huge technological barriers the ventures must climb, there’s a mountain of skepticism they also must overcome.

Skip to content