Microsoft has announced a deal to buy electricity from nuclear fusion company Helion Energy, which claims to be able to deliver the world's first commercial fusion generator by 2028. The agreement is the first of its kind for the power source that fuels the sun but has been impossible to replicate on Earth.
Nuclear fusion is a potentially limitless source of clean energy that does not produce radioactive waste, unlike nuclear fission, which splits atoms apart. Fusion occurs when two light atoms such as hydrogen, heated to extreme temperatures, fuse into one heavier atom releasing large amounts of energy.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says nuclear fusion “could provide virtually limitless clean, safe, and affordable energy to meet the world's demand.” According to the agency, fusion is not only cleaner than current energy methods, it is also more efficient and “could generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than fission (used in nuclear power plants) and nearly four million times more energy than burning oil or coal.”
Scientists have been pursuing nuclear fusion for decades, but so far no one has been able to achieve net energy gain, meaning that more energy is released than consumed by the process. Government labs and more than 30 companies are racing to overcome this challenge, with some receiving billions of dollars in private funding.
Helion Energy, a private U.S. company based in Washington state, says it has developed a unique technology that uses a mix of laser and magnet technologies to achieve fusion. It plans to build a plant that will target power generation of 50 megawatts or greater after a one-year ramp up period. One megawatt can supply up to about 1,000 U.S. homes on a typical day.
Microsoft Betting on Nuclear Fusion to Aid Carbo Negative Goals
Microsoft says it signed the power purchase agreement with Helion as part of its long-term clean energy goals. The deal will help Microsoft reduce its emissions and support the development of a new and efficient method for bringing more clean energy to the grid.
“We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy,” says Brad Smith, Vice Chair and President at Microsoft. “Helion's announcement 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.”
In 2020, Microsoft said it will reduce emissions to become carbon negative by 2030. The decision followed a 2017 commitment to cut 75% of its carbon emissions by the same date and builds on 2019 revisions of 70% renewable energy by 2023.
While many mistakenly think the plan means Microsoft will stop using fossil fuels, that is not the case. Microsoft's commitment means by 2030 it will remove more CO2 emissions from the world than it puts in through the use fossil fuels.
Being able to harness nuclear fusion would allow Microsoft to accelerate its plans further and work towards no carbon output. In March, the company partnered with CarbonCapture to store its carbon underground and stop it from contributing to climate change. However, these are seen as stop-gap solutions that do not solve the underlying problem of pollution on an industrial scale.
Also on March, Microsoft folded the Xbox brand into its wider carbon emission goal by saying the gaming division will also be carbon negative by 2030.
Helion's Ambitious Plans Offer No Guarantees
The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Helion's founder and CEO David Kirtley said it was a binding agreement that had financial penalties if the company failed to deliver. He also said Helion was the first private company to achieve 100 million degrees Celsius, which is close to the optimum temperature for fusion.
“This collaboration represents a significant milestone for Helion and the fusion industry as a whole,” Kirtley says. “We are grateful for the support of a visionary company like Microsoft. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are confident in our ability to deliver the world's first fusion power facility.”
However, some experts are skeptical about Helion's ambitious timeline and claims. Robert Rosner, a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago, said it would be “astonishing” if Helion succeeded in building a commercial fusion generator by 2028. He said there were many technical and economic challenges that still needed to be overcome.
“It's the most audacious thing I've ever heard,” Rosner told The Verge. “In these kinds of issues, I will never say never. But it would be astonishing if they succeed.”