Fusion energy startups have attracted a lot of attention and investment in recent years, despite experts predicting the technology is still decades away.
Now, Microsoft has made the boldest bet so far, signing a deal to purchase electricity from a fusion reactor starting in just five years.
Nuclear fusion reactors harness the same reaction that powers the sun, in which atoms are smashed together to produce vast amounts of energy.
Efforts to tame the process here on Earth have been underway for decades, but the complexity of the problem means that most experts predict we’re still a long way off from fusion being a reliable source of electricity.
According to the Fusion Industry Association, 33 companies have raised roughly five billion dollars in recent years, and many are predicting that commercial fusion will be a reality by the end of the decade.
“This collaboration represents a significant milestone for Helion and the fusion industry as a whole,” CEO David Kirtley said in a press release.
“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.”
That’s aggressive considering it was only last December that researchers first demonstrated a fusion reaction that produced more energy than was required to create it.
Helion is also relying on a somewhat unconventional approach to nuclear fusion.
Most other fusion experiments over the years have used tokamaks-doughnut-shaped vessels that use powerful magnets to contain plasma, which is then heated up to fusion temperatures.
The approach Helion is taking is called a “Pulsed non-ignition fusion system,” according to MIT Tech Review.
It also relies on magnets to contain a super-heated plasma, but rather than heating it further to fusion temperatures, the magnets are used to smash two rings of plasma together at a million miles an hour to trigger a fusion reaction.
The fusion reaction causes the plasma to expand and push back against the reactor’s magnetic field.
While most fusion schemes rely on two hydrogen isotopes as fuel-deuterium and tritium-Helion’s process uses a rare gas called Helium 3 that could be be hard and expensive to source.
Kirtley told The Verge that the deal contains financial penalties for Helion if it doesn’t manage to supply electricity to Microsoft by the agreed date.
Microsoft has made a multi-billion-dollar investment in OpenAI, and it’s unclear whether this connection has factored into the power purchase agreement.
There are likely to be many more twists and turns in the race to make fusion power a commercial reality.