Because nuclear fusion has the potential to make limitless quantities of clean energy without generating any long-lasting nuclear waste, it’s often called the “holy grail” of clean energy. The holy grail remains elusive, however, because recreating fusion on earth in a way that generates more energy that is required to ignite the reaction and can be sustained for an extended period of time has so far remained unattainable. If we could only manage to commercialize fusion here on earth and at scale, all our energy woes would be solved, fusion proponents say.
Fusion has also been on the horizon for decades, just out of reach, seemingly firmly entrenched in a techno-utopia that exists only in science fiction fantasy novels.
But visiting Helion Energy’s enormous workspace and lab pulled the idea of fusion out of the completely fantastical and into the potentially real for me. Of course, “potentially real” doesn’t mean that fusion will be a commercially viable energy source powering your home and my computer next year. But it no longer feels like flying a spaceship to Pluto.
As I walked through the massive Helion Energy buildings in Everett, one fully operational and one still under construction, I was struck by how workaday everything looked. Construction equipment, machinery, power cords, workbenches, and countless spaceship-looking component parts are everywhere. Plans are being executed. Wildly foreign-looking machines are being constructed and tested.
For the employees of Helion Energy, building a fusion device is their job. Going to the office every day means putting part A into Part B and into part C, fiddling with those parts, testing them, and then putting them with more parts, testing those, taking those parts apart maybe when something doesn’t work right, and then putting it back together again until it does. And then moving to Part D and Part E.
The date of my visit is relevant to this story, too, because it added a second layer of strange-becomes-real to my reporting trip.
On October 20, the Seattle Everett region was blanketed in dangerous levels of wildfire smoke. The air quality index for Everett was 254, making it the worst air quality in the world at that time, according to IQAir.
“Several wildfires burning in the north Cascades were fueled by warm, dry, and windy weather conditions. Easterly winds flared the fires as well as drove the resulting smoke westwards towards Everett and the Seattle region,” Christi Chester Schroeder, the Air Quality Science Manager at IQAir North America, told me.
Global warming is helping to fuel those fires, Denise L. Mauzerall, a professor of environmental engineering and international affairs at Princeton, told me.
“Climate change has contributed to the high temperatures and dry conditions that have prevailed in the Pacific Northwest this year,” Mauzerall said. “These weather conditions, exacerbated by climate change, have increased the likelihood and severity of the fires which are responsible for the extremely poor air quality.”
It was so bad that Helion had told all of its employees to stay home for the first time ever. Management deemed it too dangerous to ask them to leave their houses.
The circumstances of my visit set up an uncomfortable battle. On the one hand, I had a newfound sense of hope about the possibility of fusion energy. At same time, I was wrestling internally with a deep sense of dread about the state of the world.
I wasn’t alone in feeling the weight of the moment. “It is very unusual,” Chris Pihl, a co-founder and the chief technology officer at Helion, said about the smoke.
Pihl has worked on fusion for nearly two decades now. He’s seen it evolve from the realm of physicist academics to a field followed closely by reporters and collecting billions in investments. People working on fusion have become the cool kids, the underdog heroes. As we collectively blow past any realistic hope of staying within the targeted 1.5 degrees of warming and as global energy demand continues to rise, fusion is the home run that sometimes feels like the only solution.
“It’s less of a academic pursuit, an altruistic pursuit, and it’s turning into more of a survival game at this point I think, with the way things are going,” Pihl told me, as we sat in the empty Helion offices looking out at a wall of gray smoke. “So it’s necessary. And I am glad it is getting attention.”
How Helion’s technology works
CEO and co-founder David Kirtley walked me around the vast lab space where Helion is working on constructing components for its seventh-generation system, Polaris. Each generation has proven out some combination of the physics and engineering that is needed to bring Helion’s specific approach to fusion to fruition. The sixth-generation prototype, Trenta, was completed in 2020 and proved able to reach 100 million degrees Celsius, a key milestone for proving out Helion’s approach.
Polaris is meant to prove, among other things, that it can achieve net electricity — that is, to generate more than it consumes — and it’s already begun designing its eighth generation system, which will be its first commercial grade system. The goal is to demonstrate Helion can make electricity from fusion by 2024 and to have power on the grid by the end of the decade, Kirtley told me.
Some of the feasibility of getting fusion energy to the electricity grid in the United States depends on factors Helion can’t control — establishing regulatory processes with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and licensing processes to get required grid interconnect approvals, a process which Kirtley has been told can range from a few years to as much as ten years. Because there are so many regulatory hurdles necessary to get fusion hooked into the grid, Kirtley said he expects their first paying customers are likely to be private customers, like technology companies that have power hungry data centers, for example. Working with utility companies will take longer.
One part of the Polaris system that looks perhaps the most otherworldly for a non fusion expert (like me) the Polaris Injector Test, which is how the fuel for the fusion reactor will get into the device.
Arguably the best-known fusion method involves a tokamak, a donut-shaped device that uses super powerful magnets to hold the plasma where the fusion reaction can occur.An international collaborative fusion project, called ITER (“the way” in Latin), is building a massive tokamak in Southern France to prove the viability of fusion.
Helion is not building a tokamak. It is building a long narrow device called a Field Reversed Configuration, or FRC, and the next version will be about 60 feet long.
The fuel is injected in short tiny bursts at both ends of the device and an electric current flowing in a loop confines the plasma. The magnets fire sequentially in pulses, sending the plasmas at both ends shooting towards each other at a velocity greater than one million miles per hour. The plasmas smash into each other in the central fusion chamber where they merge to become a superhot dense plasma that reaches 100 million degrees Celsius. This is where fusion occurs, generating new energy. The magnetic coils that facilitate the plasma compression also recover the energy that is generated. Some of that energy is recycled and used to recharge the capacitors that originally powered the reaction. The additional extra energy is electricity that can be used.
Kirtley compares the pulsing of their fusion machine to a piston.
“You compress your fuel, it burns very hot and very intensely, but only for a little bit. And the amount of heat released in that little pulse is more than a large bonfire that’s on all the time,” he told me. “And because it’s a pulse, because it’s just one little high intensity pulse, you can make those engines much more compact, much smaller,” which is important for keeping costs down.
The idea is actually not new. It was theorized in the 1950s and 60s, Kirtley said. But it was not possible to execute until modern transistors and semiconductors were developed. Both Pihl and Kirtley looked at fusion earlier in their careers and weren’t convinced it was economically viable until they came to this FRC design.
Another moat to cross: This design does use a fuel that is very rare. The fuel for Helion’s approach is deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that is fairly easy to find, and helium three, which is a very rare type of helium with one extra neutron.
“We used to have to say that you had to go into outer space to get helium three because it was so rare,” Kritley said. To enable their fusion machine to be scaled up, Helion is also developing a way to make helium three with fusion.
A dose of hope
There is no question that Helion has a lot of steps and processes and regulatory hurdles before it can bring unlimited clean energy to the world, as it aims to do. But the way it feels to walk around an enormous wide-open lab facility — with some of the largest ceiling fans I have ever seen — it seems possible in a way that I hadn’t ever felt before. Walking back out into the smoke that day, I was so grateful to have that dose of hope.
But most people were not touring the Helion Energy lab on that day. Most people were sitting stuck inside, or putting themselves at risk outside, unable to see the horizon, unable to see a future where building a fusion machine is a job that is being executed like a mechanic working in a garage. I asked Kirtley about the battling feeling I had of despair at the smoke and hope at the fusion parts being assembled.
“The cognitive dissonance of sometimes what we see out in the world, and what we get to build here is pretty extreme,” Kirtley said.
“Twenty years ago, we were less optimistic about fusion.” But now, his eyes glow as he walks me around the lab. “I get very excited. I get very — you can tell — I get very energized.”
Other young scientists are also excited about fusion too. At the beginning of the week when I visited, Kirtley was at the American Physics Society Department of Plasma Physics conference giving a talk.
“At the end of my talk, I walked out and there were 30 or 40 people that came with me, and in the hallway, we just talked for an hour and a half about the industry,” he said. “The excitement was huge. And a lot of it was with younger engineers and scientists that are either grad students or postdocs, or in the first 10 years of their career, that are really excited about what private industry is doing.”