Nuclear fusion start-up Helion scores $375 million investment from Open AI CEO Sam Altman

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  • Fusion start-up Helion Energy on Friday announced a $500 million funding round.
  • The round was led by Silicon Valley investor Sam Altman, who invested $375 million in Helion, his largest investment to date in a start-up.
  • Helion Energy plans to use $500 million to complete the construction of Polaris, its 7th generation fusion facility, which broke ground in July, and which aims to demonstrate pure electricity generation in 2024. To use.

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Nuclear fusion is the momentary holy grail of climate technology. This would provide an almost unlimited amount of clean energy without long-lasting radioactive waste byproducts.

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It’s also Silicon Valley legend Sam Altman’s biggest bet to date.

“It’s the biggest investment I’ve ever made,” Altman told Businesshala of his $375 million investment Helion Energy, announced Friday. It is part of a larger $500 million round that the start-up will use to complete the construction of a fusion facility near its headquarters in Everett, Washington.

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Altman was President of Silicon Valley Start-up Shop Y Combinator from 2014 to 2019 And is now the CEO of Open AI, an organization that researches artificial intelligence, which he co-founded with Elon Musk and others. (Musk has since stepped down, citing conflicts of interest with Tesla’s AI activities.) Altman has also been a big proponent of universal basic income, the idea that the government should pay every citizen to compensate for technological disruptions. Some jobs that should pay a basic living wage are irrelevant.

Years ago, Altman made a list of technologies he wanted to get into, and artificial intelligence and energy were at the top of that list.

Altman toured four fusion companies, and made his first $9.5 million investment in Helion 2015.

“I immediately after meeting the founders of Helion thought they were the best and that their technical approach was the best ever,” he said.

Helion’s approach to fusion

Nuclear fusion is the opposite reaction of nuclear fission: Where fission splits a larger atom into two smaller atoms, releasing energy, fusion occurs when Two lighter nuclei collide to form a heavier atom. This is the way the Sun creates energy, and is the basis of the hydrogen bomb. Helion is one of a handful of start-ups working to control and commercialize fusion as an energy source, including Commonwealth Fusion Systems and TAE Technologies.

Perhaps the most famous fusion project is Iter in southern France, where about 35 nations They are collaborating to build a donut-shaped fusion machine called the Tokamak.

Helion does not use a tokamak, said David Kirtley, Co-Founder and CEO of Helion. The fusion machine Helion is building is long and narrow.

Helion uses “pulsed magnetic fusion,” Kirtley explained. This means the company uses aluminum magnets to compress its fuel and then expands it to draw electricity directly out.

Extremely high temperature is required to create and maintain the fragile state of matter which is called Plasma, where electrons are separated from the nucleus, and where fusion can occur.

In June, Helion announced exceeded 100 million °C in its sixth fusion generator prototype, Thirty.

Kirtly compares Helion’s fusion machine to a diesel engine, while older technologies are like a campfire. With a campfire, you light a fire to produce heat. In a diesel engine, you inject fuel into a container, then compress and heat the fuel until it starts to burn. “And then you use its extension to do useful work directly,” Kirtley said.

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“By adopting this fresh new approach and some old physics, we can go ahead and do it faster,” Kirtley said. “The systems are too small, too fast to iterate, and then that leads us to commercially useful electricity, which is solving the climate change problem as quickly as possible.”

Helion Energy is using neutronic fusion, which means “they don’t have neutrons with very high energies present in the fusion reaction,” according to Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force.

There are still unknowns with neutronic fusion, Rampal said.

“An neutronic approach, like Helion Energy, may have potential advantages that other approaches do not, but there may also be distinct downsides and challenges to achieving commercial fusion energy production,” Rampal said.

Overall, however, Rampal believes the wave of investment and innovation in Fusion over the past two decades is good news for the industry.

“There is much left to be proven for true commercial fusion approaches,” Rampal said, approaching the problem from many different angles and trying to determine where the best pros and cons are with the individual technologies, where The fusion industry must happen now.” Businesshala.

Altman’s three-part utopian vision

For Altman, the fusion is part of his holistic vision of increasing abundance through technological innovation – an approach that differs from that of many investors and thinkers in the climate sector.

“Number one, I think this is our best shot at getting out of the climate crisis,” Altman said.

More generally, “reducing energy costs is one of the best ways to improve people’s quality of life,” Altman said. “NS the correlation is simply incredibly large

Altman’s utopian vision consists of three parts.

Artificial intelligence, Altman said, will reduce the cost of goods and services with rapid increases in productivity. In a transition period where many jobs are lost, a universal basic income will be necessary to pay for people’s living costs. And a third part of Altman’s vision for the virtually unlimited, low-cost, green energy world.

“So for the same reason that I’m so interested in AI, I think that fusion, as a pathway to energy, is in abundance, like the second part of the equation,” Altman told Businesshala.

“I think fundamentally in the world today, the two limiting objects that you see everywhere are intelligence, which we’re trying to work on with AI, and energy, which I think is the core of Helion’s.” Pass is the most exciting thing in the whole world that is happening right now.”

But Altman knows that fusion has been elusive for decades. “The joke in Fusion is that 30 years are gone for 50 years,” he said.

Kirtley was also disappointed by the seemingly impossible deadline to commercialize Fusion. “I got into Fusion, spent a few years learning everything I could about Fusion and all the specific approaches, and really got carried away with Fusion. I said these timelines don’t help us,” Kirtley told Businesshala.

He worked with NASA, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on space propulsion technology to help humans travel to Mars and beyond.

But the idea of ​​using closer fusion with newer technologies held Kirti back.

Curtly Joined its co-founders John Slough, George Votrebeck and Chris Pihl to launch Helion in 2013. “We were able to show that there are really new approaches to fusion that take modern technology — electronics, and fiber optics and computers — that haven’t been fully applied to the fusion industry,” Kirtley said.

The money from the round announced on Friday will be used to complete the construction of Polaris. Helion’s 7th Generation Fusion Facility, which it launched in July And which aims to use to demonstrate the net electricity generation in 2024.

other Helion’s investors include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder. Moskovitz also participated again in Friday’s funding round.

The mission is personal to Kirtley, as tackling climate change is to many. He moved from Southern California to Washington in 2008.

“I see Washington summers now where we have fires, and we didn’t when I first got here,” he said. The urgency is tangible as they are “watching the glaciers on Mount Rainier melt.”

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