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Groundbreaking Nuclear Fusion Deal Could Be Revolutionary
Can Helion really provide 500MW to US steelmakers by 2030?
For decades, nuclear fusion has promised to be the utopian future of energy. Through it, we can access copious amounts of energy with no carbon emissions and basically no nuclear waste. But, after years of trying, such world-changing technology has failed to come to fruition, and fusion power has started to feel like a never-ending Sisyphean task. But we might be a lot closer to unlocking this holy grain of energy than you might think. That is if you believe the deals Helion is making. Let me explain.
Helion is a nuclear fusion startup that was founded in 2013 with funding from NASA to explore a new type of fusion reactor. Their unique approach has enabled them to make massive leaps forward, and they have even claimed that they can start delivering commercial fusion power plants as early as 2028 (more on their technology in a minute). If you want to know more about them and how fusion works, go to my previous article here. Such brash claims have drawn significant attention and investment from the likes of Microsoft. But recently, Helion announced that a US steelmaker, Nucor, has invested $35 million into them, and in turn, they will collaborate, and Helion will deliver a 500 MW fusion power plant to Nucor for use in their mills by 2030.
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But there is a problem here. You see, no one is even close to generating power with fusion, let alone a commercial 500 MW plant.
Helion’s current reactors require more energy to run than the fusion reactions actually produce, making them useless as energy sources.
Now, there are reactors out there that can create a net-gain in energy. Back in December 2022, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) reached “ignition.” This is a state where heat from fusion reactions causes more fusion in a chain reaction type process, also known as a “burning plasma.” This enabled them to create a reaction that emitted 54% more energy than they pumped into it. But even NIF is miles away from actually producing power. The laser they use to initiate fusion is only 0.5% efficient, and the steam-based energy capture systems that would be used with their reactors are only 60% efficient. This means that even with ignition, NIF still can’t actually turn their technology into a usable energy source.
So how can Helion even hope to be building fusion power plants by the end of the decade? Is this all a scam? Well, no. You see, Helion has a massive advantage over NIF, and it is all down to their brilliant reactor design and fuel.
You see, NIF fuses two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. This is because this reaction releases the most energy in comparison to the energy it takes to get them to fuse. However, they emit their energy mainly through neutrons, and efficiently recovering energy from neutrons is really hard and inefficient.
Helion, on the other hand, fuses deuterium and helion, an isotope of helium also known as helium-3. When these fuse, they give off most of their energy in the form of high-speed charged particles. This means Helion can use an array of electromagnets to capture the energy emitted from fusion with a 95% efficiency.
What’s more, their reactor doesn’t use lasers. Instead, it uses electromagnets to heat and compress two separate blobs of plasma and then fire them at each other. This means that their reactors should be able to create conditions for fusion far more efficiently than NIF. Moreover, this method negates the complex plasma dynamic issues of other magnet-based fusion reactors like JET and ITER, which significantly hamper their efficiency. Again, if you want to learn more about Helion’s reactors, go to my old article here.
This baked-in efficiency means that once Helion can create ignition like NIF has, they can almost immediately make a functioning fusion power plant from this technology. So, it isn’t impossible that they can actually provide Nucor with power by 2030.
Now, that isn’t to say Helion is a sure bet. There is still an awful lot of scepticism around them. For one, they used to claim that their reactors would be ready for commercial operations by 2024 but have now pushed that back to 2028. Reaching ignition is also no simple task. NIF is still trying to figure out how they were able to reach it, and have actually struggled to reliably recreate it. There is also a problem with the fuel. You see, helion radioactively decays quickly, so they have to make it in the reactor by fusing deuterium with itself. This takes extra energy to do, and as this reaction emits its energy via neutrons, Helion can’t capture the energy emitted from this reaction. This has the effect of reducing overall efficiency, making reaching a net-gain of energy even more challenging.
Thanks to these massive challenges faced by Helion, some have gone as far as to label them and their investors as greenwashers. This isn’t really true, as the science and engineering behind Helion are solid, and it is certainly possible they could finally bring this brilliant technology to life. However, it is a shot in the dark. There is no definite roadmap with fusion; there are too many dead-end development paths and counterintuitive ways forward. That is why we have struggled to figure this technology out for so long. So don’t hold your breath for fusion power by 2030. But you never know; Helion might just be able to pull off a little miracle here.
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