Why has Microsoft signed a million-dollar deal with a nuclear power company?

Microsoft struck a deal with Helion Energy with one goal: to connect the first commercial nuclear fusion generator to a public power grid by 2028.


Microsoft has reached an agreement with Helion Energy , a nuclear fusion company , to advance research into clean energy generation.

Helion Energy wants to deliver at least 50 Megawatts of this power to a power grid in Washington, a proposal that has already been called “bold” by scientists and researchers.

in search of the holy grail

Nuclear fusion can become a potentially unlimited source that, in the best of cases, does not pollute the environment.

Optimistic estimates by experts about when the world might see its first nuclear fusion power plant have ranged from late in the decade to several decades from now.

According to the agreement, however, now the deadline is to do it in the minimum time. “This is a binding agreement that has financial penalties if we can’t build a fusion system,” Helion founder and CEO David Kirtley tells The Verge . “We have committed to being able to build a system and sell it commercially to [ Microsoft ].”

Nuclear fusion mimics the way stars create their own light and heat by fusing hydrogen nuclei and creating helium, which generates vast amounts of energy. The difference with nuclear fission, which separates atoms, is that it generates radioactivity.

Helion Energy is developing a 12-meter device called a plasma accelerator that heats fuel to 100 million degrees Celsius. It heats deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) and helium-3 in a plasma and then uses pulsed magnetic fields to compress the plasma until fusion occurs.

“Helion’s announcement supports our own long-term clean energy goals and will move the market forward to establish a new and efficient method for bringing more clean energy to the grid, faster,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft vice president and president , in a press release.

scientists doubt

It is not an easy task, say the scientists to the medium.

I would say it’s the boldest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Robert Rosner, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago. “In these types of issues, I will never say never. But it would be amazing if they did.”

It takes extreme heat and pressure to force the atoms to fuse. And until recently, researchers hadn’t been able to do this without burning more energy than the fusion reaction actually produced. Getting enough helium-3 fuel could be another big challenge, Rosner says, without a way to produce it in commercial quantities.

Assuming Helion can achieve all of this, it still has to make sure it can do it in an affordable way. The cost of the electricity it generates for consumers would have to be comparable to or cheaper than current power plants, solar farms and wind farms.