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Fusion’s Future: Helion eyes valley for groundbreaking energy venture

By Emily Thornton, The Wenatchee World
Published: April 11, 2024, 7:40am

WENATCHEE — A first-of-its-kind energy source may power up in the valley.

Nuclear fusion power company Helion signed a letter of intent with the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority — which commissioners OK’d Tuesday — for a one-year feasibility period to conduct due diligence on part of a 25-acre plot in Malaga. The year would also give the Chelan County PUD a chance to complete its interconnection study, according to Stacie de Mestre, port economic development and capital projects director.

Everett-based Helion plans to provide a minimum of 50 megawatts for Microsoft’s data centers, as the two signed a contract in May 2023, said Jessie Barton, Helion communications director. Eventually, Helion could “produce a gigawatt of electricity, which is one billion watts, or 20 times the 50 megawatts it is selling to Microsoft,” according to a CNBC report.

Helion, which launched in 2013, is building its seventh fusion prototype in Everett, called Polaris, which aims to prove the company can create energy using fusion. But the potential Malaga site could house the first machine providing commercial power. Polaris should be complete this year, and the commercial machine would be operational by 2028 after a one-year ramp-up period.

“This first fusion power plant, for which the feasibility is being assessed in Chelan (County), will produce electricity that will go to the grid; (energy company) Constellation will serve as the Power Marketer for Helion’s first customer, Microsoft,” Barton wrote in an email. “It’s important to note… there is currently no commitment the company will build in the area,” as the company is looking at several sites. She also said the building could be about 30,000 square feet.

In 2023, Helion raised “more than $570 million in private capital, with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman providing $375 million in 2021,” according to a Reuters report, which also quoted Brad Smith, vice chair and president at Microsoft Corp, in a news release: 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.”

OpenAI is the artificial intelligence organization that developed the chat platform ChatGPT, in which Microsoft has invested billions of dollars. According to a CNBC report, “Altman believes the two deals are equally important and correlated components of the future he sees for humanity.”

Fusion isn’t a new concept.

A group of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1960s “hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. “Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation, and experimental design.”

Helion combines “really, really small atoms” to create a single atom,” to create energy, Barton said.

“In fusion, you use hydrogen and helium, and if you were looking at a periodic table, you would see that those are the two really light elements on the table… And whenever those atoms combine, they actually” form an atom weighing less than the original atoms, she said.

“When you have a change in mass, some energy is released,” she added. “And that’s really how energy at a very fundamental level is created through the fusion process.”

She noted fusion is different from fission. “Fission is the process of basically doing the exact opposite. You take atoms and you split them apart, and they use much larger atoms.”

“All nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, and most nuclear power plants use uranium atoms,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Fusion is a source of clean, reliable and abundant energy,” Barton said. “It’s clean because it produces zero carbon, so unlike natural gas or coal, you don’t have any carbon that’s being released into the atmosphere wherever you’re going through a fusion process to create energy. There’s also no… (high level) radioactive waste.”

According to an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Spectrum article, Helion’s 19-meter-long Everett prototype “plans to fuse two rare isotopes of very common elements — the extra lightweight helium isotope helium-3 with the heavy hydrogen called deuterium… The D-helium-3 reactions aren’t completely aneutronic, but they release only about 5% of their energy in the form of fast neutrons. That won’t completely eliminate the complications of radiation damage, but it will reduce them significantly.”

Because of Helion’s byproducts, Barton said it was placed “under a different regulation and a different regulatory framework from fission. We are regulated like hospitals or particle accelerators” under the Washington Department of Health.

Additionally, in March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1924, “promoting the integration of fusion technology within state clean energy policies,” according to the bill. It takes effect June 6.

Fusion doesn’t rely on sun or wind and operates 24/7, Barton said.

“There’s also no risk of meltdown,” she said. “Fusion doesn’t have a chain reaction, so whenever fusion stops, it just stops. In fact, fusion is so hard that it’s really difficult to do and so to keep that process going the machine has to continue working.”

The IEEE article said Helion’s Everett plant will “depend on large banks of capacitors that will store a whopping 50 megajoules of energy and discharge it in less than a millisecond — over and over again.” Its plasma guns pulse about once a second to condense “plasma with a magnetic field until it becomes hot and dense enough to fuse. As the energy is released, the plasma will push outward against the magnetic field, allowing the system to harvest the charged energy through magnetic coils.”

Fusion’s fuel “comes from any fresh or saltwater,” Barton said. “And very little amounts of fuel are able to power a lot more than people would anticipate.”

For instance, she said a 500-milliliter bottle of deuterium water can power a home for 865 years, and a gram of deuterium oxide can power a home for more than a year in Washington. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “deuterium is a stable isotope of hydrogen, which, unlike ‘normal’ hydrogen atoms, or protium, also contains a neutron.”

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Port commissioner JC Baldwin said Helion’s potential plant “was a very exciting opportunity for Chelan County.”

Helion’s building could sit on part of the former GBI Holding Co. land at 4816 Malaga Alcoa Highway, as de Mestre said Microsoft didn’t need the full 25 acres for a wastewater “spray field.”

Since water used to cool Microsoft’s data centers doesn’t meet groundwater standards, it’s not allowed to infiltrate the groundwater, RH2 Engineering said previously. Instead, there likely will be ponds to allow the water to evaporate and 1.9 acres of spray field per data center building for evapotranspiration. The size of the system is based on peak discharge rates.

Each of perhaps six buildings is expected to use 819,000 gallons of water annually, from May through September, with a peak hour of 97 gallons per minute per building.

About 13 of the 23 available acres on GBI for the cooling system would be used, leaving about 15 acres for more development, like Helion’s plant.

This article has been updated, specifying the radioactive waste level from Helion’s new plant, which has no name yet.