Energy’s Holy Grail? You can find it at Redmond's Helion Energy

The local firm says it will soon be able to harness the same mechanism that powers the sun to bring Washington a cleaner energy future.
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Helion Energy CEO David Kirtley holds an ampule of deuterium-laced water.

The local firm says it will soon be able to harness the same mechanism that powers the sun to bring Washington a cleaner energy future.

The glass ampule of water is the length of your little finger, only narrower.

That single gram of deuterium-laced water has the potential to create 18 megawatt-hours of electricity — enough to power a home for at least a year. It normally takes 10 tons of coal to generate that much juice. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, essentially a hydrogen atom with a neutron added to it.

That dream is a Holy Grail of nuclear physics — fusion power — and researchers at a small Redmond laboratory, Helion Energy, believe they are only a few years away from creating nuclear fusion that can be used as a source for electricity. Several other ventures worldwide believe they are just as close, although everyone is using different approaches.

A fusion reactor will be supposedly smaller, cheaper and safer than the huge fission power reactors that currently dot the world, but so far no one has been able to create nuclear fusion outside of a hydrogen bomb, in which nuclear fission sparks the explosion that leads to fusion. Nuclear fusion occurs naturally in our sun and in the stars.

Gov. Jay Inslee is excited about fusion power, seeing it as a way to create electricity without carbon emissions. Battling carbon emissions has been a top priority of his. A bipartisan legislative task force has been studying expanding nuclear power in Washington. It has focused mostly on small modular reactors — 50- to 300-megawatt fission reactors prefabricated in one spot and assembled where they are needed. That task force has not yet researched fusion power.

So what is fusion power and why is it so difficult to create?

Atomic bombs and nuclear reactors use fission, which splits atoms. Fusion, on the other hand, slams together the cores of two atoms to create the core of one new atom. In today's fusion efforts, the cores of two hydrogen atoms are crunched to create a new helium atom — with the resulting energy being eyed to create electricity. The physics and engineering of splitting an atom is much simpler than slamming two atoms together to create a new one. Also, a fundamental problem with today's fusion effort is that it takes more energy to create potential fusion than is generated by the reaction. Fusion won't be successful until the reaction produces more energy coming out than what went in.

Fusion has existed on the drawing board since the 1920s, but it has been missing the right temperatures, the right atomic cores, the right slamming speeds, the right conditions of the plasmas to envelope the colliding atom cores, the right oscillating magnetic fields enclosing the reaction, the right balance of these forces and other factors in order to work.

"We need high pressures like in the core of the sun. The problem is that those pressures are extraordinarily difficulty to achieve on Earth," said David Kirtley, Helion's chief executive officer.

What Helion is trying to achieve is to shoot two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at each other at one million miles per hour to collide within an indescribably strong magnetic field to create a 100 million degree Celsius reaction for a millisecond. All this occurs inside a quartz tube about eight inches in diameter and a little more than 12 feet long, surrounded by a forest of cables that generate a colossal magnetic field.

This fusion reactor prototype is the fourth one built by Helion. In Starbucks-style, the stages of development are named after coffee drink sizes. The third version was dubbed "Tall," and the current one is "Grande," which is capable of generating 50 million degrees of heat. The next and final version will be dubbed "Venti," with a goal of generating the required 100 million degrees of heat to produce fusion. The Venti model is still in the design stage by Helion’s staff of seven full-time and four part-time scientists.

The reason that fusion is considered safe when compared to nuclear fission is that it is such a finicky process that any deviation from the hard-to-achieve, ideal conditions will shut it down. "The thing about fusion is that it is so hard to do, that if you mess up, it turns off," Kirtley said.

Meanwhile, fusion is dramatically cheaper than current fission reactors because of the relatively small amount of deuterium needed — as opposed to processed uranium fuel used for fission. Water is cheaper compared to uranium, and the waste disposal problem is tiny compared to trying to find places to put used nuclear waste and spent fuel rods.

The predicted cost for fusion is two cents to create a kilowatt-hour. A fusion device the size of a semi-truck could produce 50 megawatts for 10 years with a 55-gallon barrel of deuterium-laced water. That's enough power for 40,000 homes. By comparison, the huge Columbia Generating Station fission reactor at Richland generates power at a cost of 2.75 to 5.2 cents per kilowatt-hour because of the huge capital and financing costs of the facility. The use of fusion devices would have to be scaled-up to match Columbia’s output, however, as it can generate enough power itself to light up the equivalent of all the households in Seattle.

Fusion is also being looked at as a compact long-running power source for propulsion systems for probes into outer space. In fact, Helion Energy is a spin-off and next-door neighbor of MSNW, LLC, which is working on such a propulsion device for deep space exploration.

Right now, several fusion ventures worldwide are experimenting with a wide variety of devices that use lasers, plasma fields, magnetic fields and electronics. Some competing efforts are located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; General Atomics in San Diego; the National Spherical Torus Experiment in Princeton, N.J.; Tri-Alpha next to Irvine, Calif.; Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in Middlesex, N.J.; General Fusion in Vancouver, B.C.; the  National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; and Laser Megajoule near Bordeaux, France.

The biggest fusion research project is the ITER nuclear fusion facility at Cadarache, France, financed by 35 nations including the United States. It uses a design based on huge magnetic fields. But it has also gone significantly over budget and is 11 years behind schedule. The $50 billion facility has targeted 2027 to achieve fusion.

A new project popped up on the world's radar when Lockheed Martin announced in October a small fusion reactor project in the works at Palmdale, Calif.

Helion Energy' s researchers have the magnetic field concept of the ITER project and combined that with designs — such as those used by the National Ignition Facility and Laser Megajoule — that call for a laser to hit a fuel pellet. Some MSNW engineering is also mixed in. Helion's researchers also believe a smaller size has a better chance of success regarding the physics, electronics and engineering.

"It can be done for millions instead of billions of dollars," Kirtley said. Helion's project is financed by $5 million in federal Department of Energy money. The investment firm Mithril Capital Management of San Francisco has provided another $1.5 million.

Each project wants to produce fusion first, which will provide an advantage in business and prestige. However, Kirtley said: "The market is big. There's room for all of us."

Meanwhile, Helion's Grande machine routinely goes on test runs for scientists to study its reliability, engineering and other features.

In October, Inslee got to turn on the Grande for a test run when he visited the lab. He later told a clean technology conference in SeaTac: "I was allowed to fire the reactor from the control room. For a few nanoseconds, I felt like a governor that had some real power.”


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8