BY BRYAN CORLISS
Snohomish County may be on the cutting edge of an energy technology revolution, with two companies pursuing projects to commercialize technology that creates carbon-free energy by mimicking processes found on the sun.
One of the companies, Helion Energy, is set this fall to move into a new 25,000-square-foot plant off Seaway Boulevard in South Everett, paid for with part of a $500 million investment that’s the largest-ever financing package for a clean energy project.
The other company, Zap Energy, made news this past summer when it landed its own $160 million investment, with cash coming from blue-chip investors including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, plus the investment arms of oil companies Shell and Chevron.
The stereotypically cloudy Pacific Northwest may become a hub for this new energy technology that’s based on nuclear processes that occur within the sun.
Along with the two Snohomish County companies, CTFusion in Seattle and General Fusion in Burnaby, British Columbia, are among the companies pursuing different fusion energy technologies with ample financial backing from investors.
“The increasing amount of funding that’s going into fusion – and not just us, but others – it’s showing you that there’s a lot of smart people looking at the fusion space and saying ‘Hey, there are real advancements happening here,” Helion founder and CEO David Kirtley told Seattle’s GeekWire.
FUSION GENERATES ENERGY THE WAY STARS DO IT
Fusion technology has been the holy grail of nuclear science for decades. Instead of splitting atoms – which gives off massive amounts of energy, but also deadly radiation – scientists have dreamed of creating energy the way the sun does, by smashing atoms together. Fusing atoms releases energy, without giving off anywhere near as many radioactive particles.
Fusion take place in plasma, which, you may recall from your high school physics class, is a superheated gas and the most-energetic state of matter. During fusion, two atomic nuclei smash into each other, forming a new atom and releasing free electrons – electricity.
This is essentially how the sun works: Massive amounts of superheated hydrogen atoms are smashing into each other every instant, creating helium atoms and giving off the energy that warms our planet.
But while the science behind fusion has been known for decades, the challenge of engineering a system to contain a fusion reaction big enough to support commercial use has lagged behind.
That’s because it’s enormously difficult to create an environment on Earth where fusion can take place, according to the University of Washington’s Chris Hansen, a research scientist who is collaborating with another fusion-energy company, CTFusion.
Hansen told GeekWire that the primary driver of advances in fusion technology has been the major leaps in computing power of the past decade. That’s allowed for rapid advances in computer modeling.
“It’s very difficult to make measurements in a fusion reactor because 100 million degrees is pretty hot,” he told the Seattle news website.
“So as a result, we really rely on models and computer simulations to interpret and understand some of the things we’re seeing.”
“The sophistication of those models has gotten better and we’re really getting to the point where we have a good enough understanding that we feel like we can make some of these big steps,” Hansen added.
HELION’S TECHNOLOGY ‘REALLY WORKED’
Helion’s been around since 2013, when it was spun out of a small Redmond research and development firm, MSNW.
Fusion was one of the concepts that MSNW was pursuing back then, Kirtley told the Puget Sound Business Journal. “We had one of these technologies that really worked, and it really worked,” he said.
“It worked and it worked big. It worked better than we even expected.”
It worked so well, in fact, Kirtley and his colleagues needed to take some time to understand exactly why it was working so much better than expected, he said.
The company continued in Redmond for several years, refining its process of using electromagnetic currents to contain the plasma where fusion occurred, before it started taking major steps in the summer of 2021.
In June that year, Helion announced that the plasma inside its prototype generator had reached 100 million degrees Celsius – the ideal temperature at which a commercial power plant would need to operate.
The company also said it had successfully run its prototype reactor for 16 months.
“These achievements represent breakthroughs with major implications for how the world meets its expanding future electricity needs,” Kirtley said in a press release announcing the milestones.
Then in July, the company broke ground on its new plant, in a ceremony that included local leaders and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
And then in November, it announced its record-shattering investment: $500 million from a combination of individual investors and venture capital funds, with the potential to grow to $1.7 billion, assuming Helion hits specified targets for its development. The funding package valued the company at $3 billion.
Helion’s funding deal was “the largest deal in clean energy ever and could be the beginning of a new era: abundant, clean energy from commercialized fusion technology,” Svenja Telle, the emerging technology analyst at PitchBook said.
POLARIS IS THE NORTH STAR
Helion is calling its latest fusion reactor prototype the Polaris. It is different from many current power systems, in that it captures electricity generated by the fusion reaction, instead of using the heat to create steam that turns a generator. This results in a smaller and less-costly power generation system.
Helion says Polaris will be about the size of a shipping container and able to generate around 50 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power about 39,000 homes (according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.) That means eight of them could just about power every household in Snohomish County.
Helion says it expects to employ close to 150 people at the new Everett site – engineers and machinists who will design and build the power plants. This summer the company was advertising for mechanical, electrical, nuclear and chemical engineers, test techs, master machinists and production leads.
They are the kinds of jobs Everett is trying to attract, said Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin. The city is building upon the pool of skilled workers already here through aviation.
“Helion is going to change the world,” said Franklin. “I’m so grateful this amazing, innovative company has chosen Everett for this new fusion facility.”
Kirtley told San Francisco-based TechCrunch that he foresees data centers being likely first customers for the new fusion generators. Data centers soak up huge amounts of electricity, already have power infrastructure in place and need reliable standby generators.
Helion’s Polaris can do more than just be a standby, he told TechCrunch.
“We are excited about being at the SO-megawatt scale and being able to get electricity costs down to a cent per kilowatt-hour. You can completely change how data centers work, and you can really start answering climate change.”
A cent per kilowatt-hour is at least one fifth of the PUD’s advertised lowest rate for large businesses.
ZAP PURSUES DIFFERENT FUSION REACTOR TECHNOLOGY
Zap Energy, which has offices in Everett and Mukilteo has raised a total of $200 million from investors since 2017, including $160 million this year that includes cash from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, plus oil companies Shell and Chevron.
Instead of using magnetic fields to contain the plasma, as Helion plans, Zap energy uses a “Z-pinch” technology that uses an electromagnetic field generated within the plasma itself, which “pinches” the plasma in a confined space until it is hot and dense enough for fusion to occur.
While this has the benefit of avoiding the use of magnets, which have to be protected from the heat, scientists have doubted the practicality of the technique because of the inherent instability of the plasma itself. However, Zap Chief Science Office Uri Shumlak said in a recent interview that the company has learned how to stabilize the plasma to make the technique work.
“We’ve shown through simulation and experiment [that we can] stabilize fusion plasmas, and that the stability should extend to a commercially viable scale,” Shumlak told the science and technology website New Atlas this summer.
As a result, Zap Energy is moving forward with a plan to develop mass manufactured reactors that are small enough to fit inside a garage, providing power to remote communities, or scaled up to provide energy to entire cities.
“To be a practical energy source,” said Zap Energy President Benj Conway, “the ability to iterate quickly on a small, cheap platform is absolutely vital.”
MANY COMPETITORS CHASING FUSION TECHNOLOGY
The fusion energy space is crowded. Geekwire reports there are 42 fusion energy companies worldwide. California-based TAE Technologies is one. It raised $410 million from investors last year. General Fusion in British Columbia raised $78 million last year as well.
The science behind fusion is well understood. The challenge for all of the new energy companies is an engineering one: It takes a tremendous amount of energy to contain the super-heated plasma where the reaction occurs and, to be commercially viable, someone will have to figure out how to create a fusion reaction process that generates more energy than it consumes.
Along with the engineering hurdles, fusion energy will need a new regulatory system and will need to figure out how to connect the power it generates to the existing electricity grid.
Helion says it plans to build a working demonstrator in its new Everett plant by 2024, and UW’s Hansen says that Zap also is close.
Along with the engineering hurdles, fusion energy will need a new regulatory system and the puzzle piece of connecting the power it generates to existing electricity grid will have to be figured out.
But we are close to seeing the first commercial fusion reactor power plants, Hansen said.
“If something like (Zap) or something like Helion that’s on this smaller scale, cheaper side, you could see that ramp up pretty fast;’ he said. “Depending on how quickly someone can get the fusion part of it to work, that could be very fast”
One reason there is so much interest in fusion energy is because it has so many advantages over all other power generation technology available today.
“Fusion is fundamentally different,” Hansen said. If there’s an accident in a fusion power plant, operators shut it down, the plasma cools and the hydrogen and helium become inert gas again.
There have been major investments in solar and wind power energy – and there are likely to be even larger ones now that President Biden has signed the largest ever climate bill.
But fusion power advocates say that while wind and solar are cheap and easy ways to generate carbon-free power, they remain intermittent power sources: Solar cells don’t generate power at night; wind farms need at least a breeze to spin their turbines.
Fusion, advocates argue, can generate or distribute power during periods when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing.
Helion’s process used deuterium, a naturally occurring hydrogen isotope, and Helium-3, which is a byproduct of fusing deuterium atoms. There’s enough deuterium in the Earth’s oceans, the company says, to power fusion reactors for billions of years.
“We need our data centers and our factories and our Tesla truck charging stations powered by industrial-scale, clean, carbon-free electricity,” Kirtley told GeekWire. “Fusion, we believe, is that power.”