Microsoft signs up to buy electricity produced by fusion, perhaps in 2028

How complicated can fusion be, really?

Fusion upstart Helion Energy has named Microsoft as its first customer, and claims the software giant should be able to use electricity made by mashing together helium atoms from 2028.

Which may come as a surprise to many, given that nuclear fusion – outside of stars and incredibly destructive bombs – remains largely theoretical. The few successes in the field have produced modest net energy gains. The most celebrated recent fusion experiment, revealed by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's National Ignition Facility in late 2022, produced 3.15 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy output using more than 300 MJ of input – for "a fraction of a second."

Which is a very significant result, but nowhere near what Microsoft needs to run its mighty server fleets.

Helion Energy uses different technology to that employed at Lawrence Livermore. The startup uses a plasma accelerator that heats fuel made of deuterium and helium-3 to over 100 million degrees, in a barbell-shaped accelerator that has fuel at each end. Magnets guide the plasma to the center of the accelerator, where the two globs of fuel meet – producing electricity.

Sounds great, right?

Curb your enthusiasm. Helion is currently running its sixth-gen accelerator – a machine that has cooked up the required plasma, run for an impressive length of time, and demonstrated the viability of the company's approach to fusion.

But Helion is waiting for a seventh-gen machine, due to come online in 2024, to demonstrate net electricity gain. Until that happens it's a lot of hot air.

But at least it's signed a customer willing to buy actual electricity in 2028.

Helion makes much of the fact that tech luminaries such as Bill Gates and OpenAI boss Sam Altman are among its backers. At this point it seems apt to remind readers that wealthy techies and venture capitalists are more comfortable with risk than almost any other class of investor.

Note, also, that Helion reckons the plant from which Microsoft is expected to draw power "will target power generation of 50MW." The Register is aware of individual datacenters that consume more energy. And Microsoft has dozens of them.

But hey, you gotta start somewhere.

"We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy," starts a canned quote from Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and vice chair. "Helion's announcement supports our own long term clean energy goals and will advance the market to establish a new, efficient method for bringing more clean energy to the grid, faster."

Even if this plan doesn't eventuate on time, techies can still access ColdFusion – Adobe's tool for developing and deploying web apps. ®

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