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Record fundraising by a nuclear fusion start-up

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A nuclear fusion start-up backed by Silicon Valley investor Sam Altman and Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital has secured $500m to demonstrate commercially viable power by 2024 in the largest capital raise yet by a private fusion company.

The investment in US-based Helion is the latest sign of growing private sector confidence in the potential of nuclear fusion to provide clean, cheap power that would fundamentally transform the world’s ability to cut carbon emissions.

“On the whole, fusion has been missing from the global conversation about what we’re going to do about the climate crisis, but that is rapidly changing,” Altman, who will join Helion’s board as executive chair, told the Financial Times.

The newly formed Fusion Industry Association said last week that at least 35 different companies were now pursuing nuclear fusion around the world and predicted that fusion energy would be connected to the grid in the 2030s.

The prospect of fusing atoms to generate almost unlimited power from minimal fuel has tantalised scientists for decades. Soviet scientists pioneered the development of the first fusion machine, known as the “tokamak”, in the 1950s but no group has been able to achieve fusion while producing more electricity than the system consumes.

Unlike the traditional tokamak approach, which uses energy from the fusion reaction to drive steam turbines, Helion’s system enables it to generate electricity directly from the fusion reaction as the fuel expands.

David Kirtley, Helion’s chief executive, compared it to the regenerative breaking system in a Tesla electric car, where the kinetic energy from the vehicle is used to recharge the battery system.

“The key there is that we can bypass all the capital cost and all the complexity of all those steam turbine systems . . . and focus on getting fusion as small and fast as possible.”

The $500m investment, led by Altman, fully funds Helion to build by 2024 what would be the first fusion demonstration plant to generate net electricity. If successful, the investors, who also include Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and sustainability-focused Capricorn Investment Group, have committed to a further $1.7bn to fund future manufacturing.

Rather than building a large single fusion plant, Helion wants to produce shipping container-sized 50 megawatt fusion generators that can be transported to a site and plugged in. Sufficient to power 40,000 homes, the company initially hopes to power data centres and other industrial sites.

“With a small amount of fuel you can generate a tremendous amount of energy,” Kirtley said. The company’s approach uses the hydrogen isotope deuterium, which can be extracted from seawater. It is combined with helium and heated to more than 100m degrees Celsius, causing the atomic nuclei to fuse, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process.

One glass of the fuel is equivalent to the energy potential of 1m gallons of oil and could generate 9m kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power a home for 865 years, according to Helion.

Not only would the energy be carbon-free and almost limitless, it would also be cheap. While some technical hurdles remain, Kirtley estimated that Helion’s system could produce power for less than $0.01 per kilowatt hour. That compares with average residential power costs in the US today of roughly $0.13 per KWH.

Sceptics remain unconvinced given fusions’ many false dawns but its proponents are increasingly optimistic.

“In addition to being our best path out of the climate crisis, less expensive energy, I think it is transformational for society,” said Altman. “If the company can accomplish that it will be one of the most important moments in the history of energy and just a massive transformation of how the world works.”

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