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Microsoft commissioned the construction of a thermonuclear reactor

Trenta – one of Helion Energy’s fusion reactor prototypes
(photo: Helion Energy)

Microsoft has entered into an agreement with the company Helion Energy to build the world’s first commercial thermonuclear reactor for the needs of the software giant. Controlled fusion has long been considered the Holy Grail of energy—a potentially limitless source of clean energy that scientists have been working toward for decades.

Helion Energy believes it will be able to build a fusion reactor for Microsoft by 2028 – it will need to generate at least 50 MW of electricity. The task is extremely difficult, notes The Verge. Even the most optimistic estimates of scientists for the creation of thermonuclear power plants range from the end of the current decade to several decades to come.

The company’s success will depend on being able to make a technological breakthrough in an incredibly short period of time and then bring the technology to market and make it cost-competitive with other energy sources.

But Helion is undaunted by the technological challenges, as well as the financial penalties provided by the agreement with Microsoft in case of failure.

Fusion actually repeats the process of light and heat formation in stars. In the case of the Sun, this is the formation of helium atoms from hydrogen and the release of a large amount of energy. Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to reproduce this process in a controlled way – so far it is only possible to scale it up uncontrolled, for example in the case of the hydrogen bomb.

This promising technology is the opposite of nuclear power plants, where energy is released by splitting atoms. The main disadvantage of fission is the unstable nuclei left behind – radioactive waste. In the case of fusion, they are not formed because the reaction actually just creates new helium atoms.

Today, controlled fusion is reproduced by firing powerful laser beams at matter or by trapping plasma in a machine called a tokamak using magnetic fields.

Helion decided to go its own way, building a 12-meter plasma booster that heats fuel to 100 million °C. The hydrogen isotope deuterium and helium-3 are heated to a plasma state and compressed by magnetic fields until the fusion reaction begins.

The company claims that in this case, more energy will be released than consumed – until recently, scientists have been unable to do this, and it was only last December that researchers at the E. Lawrence National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore made a breakthrough. Helion has yet to reach that milestone.

Another potential hurdle is the need for sufficient amounts of helium-3 as fuel, although Helion has patented technology to produce this rare isotope from deuterium atoms. Finally, electricity produced in a fusion reactor must be affordable, comparable in cost to that produced in traditional power plants.

Helion did not specify what price it agreed with Microsoft, but eventually the company hopes to reach $0.01 per 1 kWh.

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