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June 22, 2023

Why there could soon be a fusion frenzy

Microsoft’s recent deal to purchase electricity created by fusion is one sign that the technology could arrive sooner than expected.

In the news

Many experts believe fusion power remains decades away. But in a commercial deal believed to be the first of its kind for fusion power, Microsoft has agreed to purchase electricity from startup Helion Energy within about five years.

Backed by OpenAI CEO and co-founder Sam Altman, Helion has committed to producing electricity through fusion by 2028 and to generating at least 50 megawatts of power for Microsoft. That’s considered a “small but significant amount.” To put it in context, the US’s first two offshore wind farms, combined, produce only 42 megawatts—but plenty of large data centers require more than 50 megawatts to keep running for a year.

Moreover, there’s a great deal of skepticism over Helion Energy’s ability to meet even modest goals. The agreement has been called “audacious,” with some scientists admitting it will be “astonishing if they succeed.”

Nevertheless, the deal follows closely on the heels of a breakthrough in which Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced what we described as “one of energy science’s long-sought-after breakthroughs: a fusion reaction that produced a net energy gain.”

Taken together, these advances may signal the emergence of nuclear fusion as a viable energy production method.

The Cognizant take

While fission-based power generation (splitting one large atom into two smaller ones) is old hat, fusion (combining two light atoms into a larger one) is “a promising long-term option for a sustainable, non-carbon-emitting global energy supply,” says Somjyoti Mukherjee, a Director in Cognizant's Energy & Utilities practice.

The uptick in activity is partly driven by climate change, Mukherjee says, which has incented private equity investments in in fusion technology. “The opportunity is huge,” he adds, “as fusion brings several advantages over fission.” Among those advantages: 

  • Exceptionally high density in the energy generated. 

  • Far greater safety than fission, as it creates zero risk of fuel meltdown and removes the threat of a large radioactive release.

  • A virtually limitless energy supply. The raw materials needed are hydrogen, deuterium and boron—all abundant on earth.

Additionally, since solar and wind power are intermittent, Mukherjee says, “fusion could be a good ‘baseload’ power source, supplying energy around the clock the way coal and nuclear plants do today.”

The world is hardly unaware of the potential and importance of harnessing fusion's power. Mukherjee points to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a long-term collaborative project involving China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US.

Members share all intellectual property generated by the collaboration, both in the current construction phase and, later, during operation. ITER has been called “the key experimental step between today's fusion research machines and tomorrow's fusion power plants,” Mukherjee notes.

In considering the Microsoft/Helion deal, Mukherjee points to Wright’s Law, which says, essentially, that as production of a given thing increases, the resources required to produce that thing decrease. Perhaps Helion’s goals are optimistic simply because of where we stand on the production/learning curve.

But the private equity funding, the international consortium, more than 30 startups investing, the need for more and more energy—"these are signs of acceleration,” he says. “The first fusion plants may hit well before the 2030 currently being forecast.”

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