Pat Clayton works on putting in electrical wiring at Helion headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Pat Clayton works on putting in electrical wiring at Helion headquarters on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Everett’s Helion eyes Central WA for groundbreaking energy venture

Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority commissioners approved a letter of intent with Helion on Tuesday.

By Emily Thornton / The Wenatchee World

Nuclear fusion power company Helion signed a letter of intent with the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority — which commissioners OK’d Tuesday — for a one-year feasibility period to conduct due diligence on part of a 25-acre plot in Malaga.

Everett-based Helion plans to provide a minimum of 50 megawatts for Microsoft’s data centers, as the two signed a contract in May 2023, said Jessie Barton, Helion’s communications director. The company agreed to provide the software giant with at least 50 megawatts of electricity from its planned first fusion power plant, starting in 2028.

Helion, which launched in 2013, is building its seventh fusion prototype in Everett, called Polaris, which aims to prove the company can create energy using fusion.

Eventually, Helion could “produce a gigawatt of electricity, which is one billion watts, or 20 times the 50 megawatts it is selling to Microsoft,” according to a CNBC report.

The potential Malaga site could house the first machine providing commercial power. Polaris should be complete this year, and the commercial machine would be operational by 2028.

“This first fusion power plant, for which the feasibility is being assessed in Chelan, will produce electricity that will go to the grid; (energy company) Constellation will serve as the Power Marketer for Helion’s first customer, Microsoft,” Barton wrote in an email. “It’s important to note … there is currently no commitment the company will build in the area,” as the company is looking at several sites. She also said the building could be about 30,000 square feet.

Port commissioner JC Baldwin said Helion’s potential plant “was a very exciting opportunity for Chelan County.”

Last year, Helion raised “more than $570 million in private capital, with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman providing $375 million in 2021,” according to Reuters. The Reuters report also quoted Brad Smith, vice chair and president at Microsoft Corp, in a news release, saying Helion’s work “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.”

OpenAI is the artificial intelligence organization that developed the chat platform ChatGPT, in which Microsoft has invested billions of dollars. According to a CNBC report, “Altman believes the two deals are equally important and correlated components of the future he sees for humanity.”

Fusion isn’t a new concept.

A group of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1960s “hypothesized that lasers could be used to induce fusion in a laboratory setting,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. “Led by physicist John Nuckolls, who later served as LLNL director from 1988 to 1994, this revolutionary idea became inertial confinement fusion, kicking off more than 60 years of research and development in lasers, optics, diagnostics, target fabrication, computer modeling and simulation, and experimental design.”

Helion combines “really, really small atoms to create a single atom,” to create energy, Barton said.

“In fusion, you use hydrogen and helium, and if you were looking at a periodic table, you would see that those are the two really light elements on the table… And whenever those atoms combine, they actually” form an atom weighing less than the original atoms, she said.

“When you have a change in mass, some energy is released,” she added. “And that’s really how energy at a very fundamental level is created through the fusion process.”

Fusion is different from fission.

“Fission is the process of basically doing the exact opposite,” Barton said. “You take atoms and you split them apart, and they use much larger atoms.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “All nuclear power plants use nuclear fission, and most nuclear power plants use uranium atoms.”

“Fusion is a source of clean, reliable and abundant energy,” Barton said. “It’s clean because it produces zero carbon, so unlike natural gas or coal, you don’t have any carbon that’s being released into the atmosphere wherever you’re going through a fusion process to create energy. There’s also no … (high level) radioactive waste.”

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1924, “promoting the integration of fusion technology within state clean energy policies,” according to the bill. It takes effect June 6.

Fusion doesn’t rely on sun or wind and operates 24/7, Barton said.

“There’s also no risk of meltdown,” she said. “Fusion doesn’t have a chain reaction, so whenever fusion stops, it just stops. In fact, fusion is so hard that it’s really difficult to do and so to keep that process going the machine has to continue working.”

Fusion’s fuel “comes from any fresh or saltwater,” Barton said. “And very little amounts of fuel are able to power a lot more than people would anticipate.”

For instance, she said a 500-milliliter bottle of deuterium water can power a home for 865 years, and a gram of deuterium oxide can power a home for more than a year in Washington. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “deuterium is a stable isotope of hydrogen, which, unlike ‘normal’ hydrogen atoms, or protium, also contains a neutron.”

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