This blog isn’t broadband-related, but it’s something that I find intriguing. Fusion energy has been touted as being about thirty years away since I was in college almost fifty years ago. As recently as ten years ago that was still the prediction. There have been huge amounts of investigation and progress during that time, but each new finding uncovered new challenges. The biggest issue has been finding a way to safely contain a ball of plasma that is as hot as the center of the sun. The approach over the years was to develop extremely powerful magnets that could suspend and hold the plasma.
But it looks like we finally found the breakthrough. Helion, a start-up in Everett, Washington, along with a few other companies, looks to finally be on the path of building and selling a workable fusion reactor. The company is currently building and plans to market its seventh-generation reactor which should be completed in 2024.
One of the unique aspects of the Helion approach is that it is not trying to sustain a ball of plasma – that’s where the big fusion reactors have struggled. Helion instead creates short, repetitive bursts of plasma. The company’s sixth-generation reactor was built in 2020 and has been generating a high-energy pulse every ten seconds since then while achieving a temperature of over 100 million degrees Celsius with each burst. The company has been able to repeatedly sustain plasma, like in the center of the sun, for longer than 1-millisecond per burst. The goal of the next-generation machine will be to generate a pulse every second.
Helion has also taken a different approach than other fusion attempts in the generation of electricity. The typical approach has been to use the heat generated by the fusion plasma to create steam to drive turbines. Helion is instead using the electromagnetic pulses to take advantage of the electromagnetic waves released during the creation of the plasma, taking advantage of Faraday’s Law of Induction. Helion has created a magnetic field around the fusion reactor that interacts with the energy that is released when deuterium and helium-3 ions are smashed together. Helion says this is resulting in a 95% energy efficiency compared to 70% for the more traditional approach.
The seventh-generation fusion reactor will be about the size of a commercial shipping container and will produce about 50 megawatts of clean energy. That’s enough power for 40,000 homes. Helion believes it will be able to generate electricity for about $10 per megawatt, which is about a third of the cost of coal-fired or solar power generation.
Perhaps the best feature of the fusion reactor is that it creates no serious waste. There are two radioactive isotopes created by the reaction. The first is tritium, which has a half-life of twelve years, and that is big demand for use in wristwatches and highway exit signs. The outer output is helium-3, which is needed to produce the fusion reaction – the fusion generator creates its own fuel. Helium-3 is rare and could also provide the basis for spaceship propulsion systems that might let us travel between stars. Approximately 25 tons of helium-3 could generate all of the electricity used by the country in a year – but the whole U.S. supply of the helium-3 today is only about 20 kilograms.
The end-product of widespread fusion generators would be the creation of endless clean energy. With fusion power, we’d still need electric grids. However, as unlimited power can be produced locally, this technology would eventually eliminate the energy-wasteful high-power transmission systems used today to connect regions of the electric grid together.
The first customers of the technology are likely to be power-hungry data centers. Data centers are most often built in the parts of the country with the most affordable electricity, but fusion power would mean we could put data centers close to the places where data is most used.