CEO David Kirtley at the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

CEO David Kirtley at the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Can fusion-powered Helion Energy change the world — from Everett?

The company, which is relocating from Redmond, is on a multibillion-dollar quest to produce clean electricity.

EVERETT — David Kirtley spent three years studying nuclear fusion, the thermonuclear reaction that makes the sun and other stars shine.

Fusion has long been viewed as a potential zero-carbon source of energy that could serve as a tool in the fight against climate change.

“I started my graduate career saying I want to do something that changes the world, and fusion — and safe, clean electricity — was it,” said Kirtley, who has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan.

Kirtley, 42, eventually concluded that fusion wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.

He abandoned his research and turned to a career in aerospace.

The story might have ended there, except that technologies — from supercomputers to high-speed fiber optics — advanced.

Now Kirtley is CEO and co-founder of Helion Energy, an Everett-based company that has embarked on a multibillion-dollar effort to produce electricity from fusion.

When Kirtley and his co-founders developed a new fusion system that worked, “we were all in.”

From its new Everett headquarters, Helion Energy hopes to change how the world produces energy.

This month the company is relocating from Redmond to a 150,000-square-foot warehouse near Paine Field, for a four-fold increase in space.

The massive building has been dubbed Antares, after the red supergiant star, and will serve as Helion’s corporate headquarters, research facility and manufacturing center.

But the heart of the operation, a stone’s throw to the east, is a 30,000-square-foot concrete building that’s been under construction since July.

When completed, the structure will house Helion’s seventh-generation fusion generator, the company’s newest prototype, called Polaris.

Pat Clayton works wiring the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Pat Clayton works wiring the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Helion describes Polaris as the world’s first fusion electricity demonstration facility. By 2024, the device is expected to produce more energy than it takes in — what’s known as net electricity — a feat that would pave the way for commercial electricity production.

In November, a group of Silicon Valley investors, including Sam Altman, Helion’s chairman of the board, provided a $500 million capital infusion to fund Polaris.

Another $1.7 billion is available should Helion reach key milestones. Prior investments, including a Department of Energy grant, totaled nearly $80 million since the company’s founding in 2013, Helion said.

“People have generated a lot of energy from fusion. Others have shown that you can do fusion reactions. But no one has made electricity,” Kirtley said. “We ’ll be the first to do that.”

Electricity production is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Biden administration is pushing for the nation’s power-generating sector to be carbon-neutral — pollution-free — by 2035.

“In just a few years we will show that the world can count on fusion to be the safe, clean energy source that we desperately need,” Kirtley said.

The goal is to produce electricity at a cost of one cent per kilowatt hour, he said. The Snohomish County Public Utility District currently charges residential customers about 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

During a recent tour of Helion’s new headquarters, Kirtley wore black sneakers with bright magenta shoelaces.

His color choice was deliberate.

“When fusion occurs, the plasma, the fused material, glows hot pink,” Kirtley explained. “That is the fundamental color of fusion.”

Finishing work is done at the entrance of the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Finishing work is done at the entrance of the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

What is fusion?

The sun and the stars shine because they are fusing hydrogen into helium. Each second, the sun converts 600 million tons of hydrogen into 596 million tons of helium. The remaining four tons is converted into energy.

“You take atoms of hydrogen, types of hydrogen, and fuse those atoms together at really high pressures to create helium, which releases energy,” Kirtley said.

Fusion in the sun’s core occurs at temperatures of around 15 million degrees Celsius. On earth, which doesn’t have the sun’s mass or gravitational forces, temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius are necessary to achieve fusion.

In June, Helion published results claiming it was the first private company to heat a fusion plasma to more than 100 million degrees Celsius. Reaching that temperature was a critical engineering milestone. It is considered the ideal fuel temperature at which a commercial power plant would need to operate, Kirtley said.

Unlike nuclear fission, which obtains its energy from splitting atoms, fusion does not produce significant amounts of radioactive waste. The reaction can also be shut down almost instantly, said Jessie Barton, a company spokeswoman.

“Nuclear fusion is like an on/off switch,” Barton said. “We can instantly stop the machine from running. There’s no danger present. If there were a major earthquake, we’re looking at being able to to flip a switch and turn it off.”

A mile or so from Helion’s new headquarters, TerraPower, which occupies a 65,000-square-foot building near Paine Field, aims to build small, safe, carbon-free nuclear fission power plants.

Nuclear power plants, which rely on fission to generate electricity, produce no greenhouse gas emissions while operating. Over their life cycle, nuclear power plants produce about the same amount of “carbon-dioxide equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind” and one-third the emissions of solar power, according to the World Nuclear Organization. About 20% of the nation’s electricity is produced by nuclear power plants. Fossil fuels contribute the largest share of electricity, at 61%.

Kirtley declined to comment on TerraPower, instead reiterating Helion’s mission to produce a commercially viable source of electricity from fusion.

Construction of the Polaris fusion reactor building near the Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Construction of the Polaris fusion reactor building near the Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The fusion process can produce energy day and night. It works regardless of weather conditions and has zero risk of meltdown, Kirtley said.

Critics say that fusion is a “grand scientific challenge” that has not yet proven efficient or cost-effective, according to a recent article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

“In experiments to date, the energy input required to produce the temperatures and pressures that enable significant fusion reactions…has far exceeded the fusion energy generated,” the report said.

“I appreciate skeptics,” Kirtley said.

“I come at fusion as someone who originally said, ‘Look, fusion is not going to happen in my lifetime,’” he added.

“It wasn’t until I saw the approaches we took to directly harness the energy from fusion and turn it into electricity that I became a believer,” he said of a small, working system the company built. The method eliminates a steam turbine and the need to generate heat and boil water, he explained.

In Redmond, Helion’s sixth-generation fusion generator, Trenta, is doing fusion reactions every morning at 3 a.m., Kirtley said.

“We’ve already proven the key physics and the key engineering about fusion at that scale,” he said.

The fuel for Helion’s fusion reaction is deuterium, a form of hydrogen found in seawater. The oceans contain enough deuterium to generate billions of years worth of zero-carbon energy, Kirtley said.

To illustrate its efficiency, Kirtley points to an ordinary-sized bottle labeled “Helion. Fusion Fuel from Water.”

A bottle of deuterium provides enough energy in a fusion reaction to replace 10 million pounds of coal or one million gallons of oil — enough fuel to power 867 homes for one year.

“We’re not focused on making big power plants. We want to make 50-megawatt generator systems that can fit in a few shipping containers, Kirtley said.

Construction of the Polaris fusion reactor building near the Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Construction of the Polaris fusion reactor building near the Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

At that size, “We can put it on a truck, ship it, install it and then run it.” A 50-megawatt system, for example, could power a data center, he said.

The next step is mass-producing fusion generators and distributing them as fast as possible to combat climate change, he said.

The company’s Everett location will be that manufacturing facility.

Choosing Everett

Snohomish County is used to building really big things, Kirtley said, like Boeing airplanes.

“We’re excited to expand to Everett and focus on growing our team,” Kirtley said. “We have a big team to build.”

The county is already home to a fair share of Helion’s workforce.

“A lot of our staff is now commuting from Snohomish County to Redmond,” Kirtley said. “It’s really nice to be able to locate here.”

The region possesses a unique combination of high technology computing, electronics and industrial manufacturing, he said.

“There’s not a lot of places where you can find that anymore, so the whole Pacific Northwest is perfect for us,” Kirtley said.

Helion scouted for properties in the Eastside suburbs and in Seattle, but Everett’s deepwater port, rail linkages and commercial airline service helped clinch the deal, Kirtley said.

“Helion is going to change the world,” said Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, who attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Polaris facility in July. “I’m so grateful this amazing, innovative company has chosen Everett for this new fusion facility.”

“We’re about 70 people right now,” Kirtley said. “We’re hiring about two people a week, which is a pretty wild pace.”

Construction materials are delivered to the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Construction materials are delivered to the new Helion Energy headquarters in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“Our aim is to get these systems operating throughout the world and show that they’re safe,” he said.

“We can start addressing public utilities after that,” Kirtley said. “I expect to be having long conversations with Snohomish County PUD — they’re on the front end of clean, renewable, low-carbon electricity.”

As a reminder of Helion’s critical mission, Kirtley had the warehouse doors at the former aerospace manufacturing facility removed.

In their place are huge windows exposing breathtaking views of Mount Baker and the north Cascade Range.

“The world needs this” Kirtley said. “I’ve watched the climate change, here, in the 13 years I’ve lived in Washington.”

For Kirtley, the mountains are a towering symbol of what is at stake.

“When I was younger, I did a lot of mountain climbing,” Kirtley said. “The view from Mount Rainier is amazing, but year after year, I watched the amount of glaciers go down.”

He stopped for a minute in front of the bank of windows.

“For the team and the mission we’re trying to solve, it’s a big challenge, but it’s worth it,” he said.

Janice Podsada;; 425-339-3097; Twitter: @JanicePods.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Dan Bates / The Herald
When Seattle Genetics founder, Clay Siegall lost his father while in college, he switched from studying for an MD to studying for a PhD., and a goal to treat cancer patients.  His efforts are paying off in lives.
Bothell biotech CEO resigns after domestic-violence allegation

Clay Siegall co-founded Seagen, which develops therapies for cancer patients. He’s accused of attacking his wife.

Epic Ford on the corner of 52nd Street and Evergreen Way in Everett is closed. The dealership has been in business for more than 50 years. (Janice Podsada / The Herald)
After 50 years, Everett’s Epic Ford dealership closes shop

It opened in 1971, when gas guzzling muscle cars like the Ford Mustang still ruled the road.

FILE - A sign at a Starbucks location in Havertown, Pa., is seen April 26, 2022. Starbucks says it will pay travel expenses for U.S. employees to access abortion or gender-confirmation procedures if those services aren't available within 100 miles of a worker’s home. The Seattle coffee chain says, Monday, May 16, 2022, the benefit will also be available to dependents of employees enrolled in its health care coverage. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)
Starbucks will cover travel for workers seeking abortions

Amazon and Tesla also will provide the benefit. Walmart and Facebook have stayed silent.

A barista pours steamed milk into a red paper cup while making an espresso drink at a Starbucks coffee shop in the Pike Place Market, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Seattle. It's as red as Santa's suit, a poinsettia blossom or a loud Christmas sweater. Yet Starbucks' minimalist new holiday coffee cup has set off complaints that the chain is making war on Christmas. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Interfaith group asks Starbucks to drop vegan milk surcharge

They say the practice amounts to a tax on people who have embraced plant-based lifestyles.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to keep canceling flights at high level for weeks

Flight cancellations since April will continue. The chaos has been damaging for Seattle’s hometown airline.

FILE - An airplane flies past the Boeing logo on the company's headquarters in Chicago, on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2001. Boeing Co., a leading defense contractor and one of the world's two dominant manufacturers of airline planes, is expected to move its headquarters from Chicago to the Washington, D.C., area, according to two people familiar with the matter. The decision could be announced as soon as later Thursday, May 5, 2022, according to one of the people. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Boeing expected to move headquarters from Chicago to DC area

The move would put Boeing executives close to their key customer, the Pentagon, and the FAA.

This 3D rendering shows Sila's 6000-foot facility in Moses Lake, to be used to manufacture lithium-ion anode battery materials. (Business Wire)
New factory in Moses Lake will bring hundreds of new jobs

The plant will manufacture lithium-ion anode battery materials for cars and cellphones.

Dr. David Kirtley at the new Helion headquarters, Antares, in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Helion Energy: New Everett company has the sun in its eyes

The firm is the winner of a new award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County, called Opportunity Lives Here.

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring is this year's winner of the Henry M. Jackson Award given by Economic Alliance Snohomish County. Photographed in Marysville, Washington on April 25, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Jon Nehring: Longtime Marysville mayor who’s nurtured growth

He’s helped steer the city’s transformation and is winner of the Jackson Award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Monti Ackerman, recipient of the John Fluke Award, is pictured Thursday, April 28, 2022, outside his office in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Monti Ackerman: A passionate volunteer and calculator whiz

The Fortive executive is the winner of this year’s Fluke Award by Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-38, is the recipient of this year's Henry M. Jackson award. The award recognizes a visionary leader who through partnership, tenacity and a strong commitment to community has created lasting opportunities to improve quality of life and positively impact the regional economy. Photographed in Everett, Washington on April 29, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Rep. Mike Sells: He fought for WSU Everett and worker rights

The retiring legislator is the recipient of the Floyd Award from Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

People sit outside the recently opened Amazon Go facility Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Mill Creek, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Cashier-less Amazon Go buzzing in Mill Creek grand opening

Locals came to check out the high-tech store, with $3 avocado toast and cameras watching customers’ every move.