back to article Microsoft and Helion's fusion deal has an alternative energy

Let's get the facts out of the way first. Microsoft and fusion energy startup Helion have announced an agreement. Helion is going to provide Microsoft with 50 megawatts of datacenter juice powered by its helium-3 fusion process, starting in 2028. There we are. Facts done. You can read El Reg's coverage and in-depth look at the …

  1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

    It's a sure thing

    It is of course entirely possible that all of the above reasoning is wrong, that Helion truly believes it can do 10 impossible things before breakfast and Microsoft agrees.

    My bet is MS doesn't really care. It gets some positive publicity, a tax writedown and can probably sue Helion if (hah!) it doesn't deliver. But maybe Helion can deliver something. I agree that the timescales look unrealistic, especially approvals. Downside to He3, other than price and availability is dealing with all those pesky fast neutrons. But maybe Helions figured out a way to create a neutron speed-trap and can capture that energy in a way that doesn't lead to the neutron absorbers becoming ever more radioactive. The paperwork to demonstrate this is safe and sustainable is probably going to take >5yrs.

    One of the amusing projects facing this problem is Cornwall's Eden Project. They decided to do some fraccing for geothermal power. Cornwall, being granite and fairly radioactive gives them the challenge that their working fluid and stuff like heat exchangers will be irradiated as the system operates, which leads to the 'green' project needing a bunch of radioactive waste licences and compliance costs.

    1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

      Re: It's a sure thing

      "their working fluid and stuff like heat exchangers will be irradiated"

      Irradiated? Where's my tin hat gone ...?

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: It's a sure thing

        Irradiated? Where's my tin hat gone ...?

        Firmly on your head I think. Cornwall's well known for it's granite and radon. If you recirculate water through that granite and a heat exchanger, what do you think will happen? It's discussed in their planning applications because nuclear waste regulations are extremely sensitive, so apply to this project and other Cornish geothermal/fraccing projects.

        1. jmch Silver badge

          Re: It's a sure thing

          " because nuclear waste regulations are extremely sensitive, so apply to this project and other Cornish geothermal/fraccing projects."

          Nuclear waste regulations are *overly* sensitive. They probably could double the allowed limits (leading to a substantial reduction in costs) without moving the needle on the actual safety of operators, plants, and the general public. Even if death rates in nuclear industry increased tenfold*, it would still be 60X / 8X / 4X less than oil / gas / hydro.

          https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/death-rates-from-energy-production-per-twh

          * not wanting to be callous of course, and every industry should be working to increase the safety of it's workers. But most of these deaths are construction/industrial accidents and have nothing to do with radioactivity.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: It's a sure thing

            Three mile island has a problem with false alarms when the wind blows the wrong way and brings combustion output (smokestack emissions) from the coal station a few miles away over the nuke plant

      2. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

        Re: It's a sure thing

        If you circulate a liquid through a mildly radioactive material, such as granite, which contains traces of radioactive elements, it is going to get irradiated.

        The fluid is going to get hit by the alpha and beta particles, the odd fast neutron, and gamma radiation, from the radioactive decay of those elements, which in turn is likely to make it mildly radioactive, and the regulations are indeed strict enough that such things should be monitored. The main point here is probably the circulation, which may concentrate some longer lived isotopes.

        It’s a relative term, though, I got irradiated the other day when I was outside doing some painting. The radiation burns have stopped feeling hot now, and just resulted in an upsurge in melanin production in my epidermis. I removed myself from the radiation source before it started triggering cell apoptosis, and put on some sunscreen.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: It's a sure thing

          If you circulate a liquid through a mildly radioactive material, such as granite, which contains traces of radioactive elements, it is going to get irradiated.

          Yep. It's essentially the same process as the primary cooling loop in a NPP, although in Eden's case, the cooling/working fluid is in direct contact with the radioactive stuff. But on the plus side, it's.. rather less radioactive than the inside of a NPP. It's also an unavoidable part of the geothermal process because the fluid is recirculated. Thus picking up more radiation, or pollutant/contaminants like salts and heavy metals. Then the challenge is mostly down to environmental regulations, which then define the fluid as radioactive or hazardous waste and expensive storage, handling and treatment.

          I removed myself from the radiation source before it started triggering cell apoptosis, and put on some sunscreen.

          Yeh, but watch out for those neutrinos! There's a story.. somewhere of a nuclear power plant worker who was banned from his job because he lived in Cornwall, thus tripped alarms and exceeded his annual/lifetime dose. Shame really, because he'd have had less radiation exposure inside the NPP than outside it. But such is the wacky world of Greens. After decades of FUD, it's coming back to bite them. Can't remember if Eden has to send it's waste water to Sellafield for 'safe' storage and reprocessing or not.

        2. Kev99 Silver badge

          Re: It's a sure thing

          FYI - A granite building throws off more radiation than Three Mile Island did when it failed. And more than a dental x-ray.

          1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

            Re: It's a sure thing

            If I could be bothered to find a reasonably priced radiation counter, I reckon my collection of uranium glass is probably a bit "warm" too. I've not grown any extra limbs yet from eating out of it, nor have I developed any glassware-related superpowers. If I did, due to the period that most of it was made, I could probably call myself something like "Art-Deco Man".

            1. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge
              Joke

              Re: It's a sure thing

              Having a muskrat posting on El Reg somewhat hints at some side effect from the radiation...

            2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
              Boffin

              Re: It's a sure thing

              I wonder if I should be having my granite kitchen counters tested? Or is that why my baked good seem to be better now than when I had wood counters?

    2. GBE

      Re: It's a sure thing

      My bet is MS doesn't really care. It gets some positive publicity, a tax writedown

      Tax writedown for what?

      Where do people get the idea that MS has invested any money?

      I've never seen any statement that MS has invested any money at all. None of the official statements go any further that stating that MS has agreed to buy X amount of electricity for Y dollars starting in year Z. Presumably the contract says "if such electricity is available" or somesuch. Tons of good publicity for zero investment (other than the time of a few lawyers who had to take a few days away from their usual work of defending MS from lawsuits).

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: It's a sure thing

        Where do people get the idea that MS has invested any money?

        If they haven't, they should. But I guess it's good for their ESG score. An actual investment would be better, and it's not like MS is short of cash.

    3. cyberdemon Silver badge
      Holmes

      Balderdash

      See Icon

      Microsoft have nothing to lose. They have just promised to buy the non-existent energy if it is ever available. "They haven't invested a dime" in the left-pond parlance.

      Meanwhile if there is any smidge of a chance that these clowns ever do manage to produce any decent quantity of Helium-3 (never mind energy...) then it will be useful for Microsoft's own (almost equally laughable) quantum-computing experiments.

      But for the PR people, it's trebles all round.

    4. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: It's a sure thing

      Downside to He3, other than price and availability is dealing with all those pesky fast neutrons

      They are doing aneutronic fusion with direct energy capture. They won't have fast neutrons or irradiated casing to worry about, and won't be running a steam turbine to collect the energy so there is no working fluid or heat exchangers.

      The upside with this is that there should be few/no "approvals" necessary since there won't be any radioactive waste created. The downside is that He3 isn't easily available (I think they are talking about using a two stage process to make their He3 on site from deuterium) and the aneutronic reaction requires higher temperatures ~ 100 million degrees K.

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Re: It's a sure thing

        No, they say they want to do those things.

        They aren't doing any of those things, and in five years time they might just possibly have built a tiny prototype in a lab.

        If they're very smart and very lucky.

        I'm hearing echoes of Theranos

        1. Crypto Monad Silver badge

          Re: It's a sure thing

          This.

          If they had a fully working prototype today, which was stable and creating more power out than it takes in, then *maybe* in 5 years they could have the first commercial product (although that's not very likely) and even then it would be stupendously expensive to run.

          But they don't. They have computer simulations, a failed prototype - the seventh one I believe - and lots of hot air, in various senses of the term.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: It's a sure thing

            Look, if I learned anything from Magic Leap, it's that wild promises and failed prototypes always indicate a successful product is right around the corner.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: It's a sure thing

          "I'm hearing echoes of Theranos"

          Same here. With MS associated with them, even if only as a potential customer, others who know little about the tech or the industry will likely invest, exactly the way Theranos got more investors based on existing "high profile" but otherwise ignorant investors.

      2. nemecystt

        Re: It's a sure thing

        The process is not aneutronic. D-D side reactions are unavoidable at the energies needed to get the D-3He reaction to work.

        The 3He production process is also not aneutronic.

        Problems.

        Big problems with regulation and longevity.

        However, unlike other approaches, the temperature issue is lessened. They are doing small scale repeated pulses. That should be easier to manage.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: It's a sure thing

          My understanding is that in their "dumbbell" you have He3 on one side and D on the other side, and they are accelerated to meet in the middle. There should be no (or almost no) D-D reactions because all of that is moving in the same direction and colliding with He3. A few stray neutrons aren't a problem, so long as there are few enough they don't over time induce radioactivity in the vessel above whatever regulatory limits there are. Those limits can't be too low, or companies shipping bananas or fabricating granite countertops would be governed by the NRC!

          I'm not sure how they plan to produce the He3 so maybe that is not aneutronic. Anyone know the reaction/method for this?

          1. nemecystt

            Re: It's a sure thing

            Unfortunately, that's not how two plasmoids rammed together and magnetically confined behave. Think of it more like a bunch of angry bees and a bunch of angry wasps in a small chamber. Bees will collide with bees as much as bees collide with wasps. They're whizzing all over the place, bouncing off each other and steered by magnetic fields. It is not a one-shot head-on collision at all.

          2. nemecystt

            Re: It's a sure thing

            Regarding your other question about production of 3He, there are 3 sources.

            Fusion of Deuterium with itself has 2 outcomes of equal probability: Tritium and a proton, or 3He and a neutron. So they can use their reactor design, if it really works, with DD fuel and then refine / separate the outputs. This is likely to be a net negative power reactor, so the secondary D-3He reactor that follows not only has to break even on its own, but also make up for that pre-processing loss.

            They can sell the Tritium to other fusion companies, or sit on it and wait for it to slowly decay into 3He (12 year half-life). That's the second way to source 3He. They could procure Tritium (difficult and super expensive) and wait for it to decay. Tritium is currently produced in very small amounts in specially prepared fission reactors and is proposed to be self-generated / recycled in some future fusion reactors not of the Helion design. Both of these require 6Li and neutrons.

            There's more 3He on the Moon than on Earth (or at least we think it will be more easily procured there). However the efficiency of mining the Moon for resources to use back on Earth is rather questionable, not to mention many, many decades away. This is the only source which does not require machinery to endure a high neutron flux. Just cosmic rays...

          3. nemecystt

            Re: It's a sure thing

            Oh, and the issues with high energy neutrons aren't just activation of reactor vessel materials. There's also blistering and embrittlement of materials over time. Besides the structural elements, Helion will have to replace their electromagnetic coils fairly frequently. They are very close to the reactor "core" and they are taking quite high forces. Their conductivity will start to suffer first and then, ultimately, their structural integrity too.

  2. Korev Silver badge
    Coat

    Missed opportunity

    If Microsoft really wanted fusion then they should have bought Sun years ago...

    1. Francis Boyle

      I think

      Ballmer was more interested in wind power.

      1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

        Re: I think

        If only you could harness the power from flying chairs, they'd be quids-in.

  3. old_IT_guy

    Erm...

    He-3 is created in the reactor from H-2, they won't need to source it commercially; the plasma accelerator (I could have called it a reactor, but that's laden with preconceptions) generates electricity directly from the plasma's magnetic fields, not via heat converters so avoiding that inefficiency.

    Did the author not actually research Helion's tech?

    1. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

      Re: Erm...

      This is true. What they have failed to do, so far, to the best of my knowledge, is demonstrate actual fusion in those pulsed plasma waves. In theory, it might check out, but I suspect the author has left out all that detail for the sake of brevity, because it is all, currently, theoretical.

      If it works, it will, no doubt, be a game changer.

      If. It. Works.

    2. Elongated Muskrat Silver badge

      Re: Erm...

      By the way, the author did also link to the other two articles here that discuss exactly that, in the second paragraph of the article. I'm assuming that they chose not to regurgitate the content of another article, because (a) that's not what this article is about and (b) why would The Register want to publish two articles within a week of each other with the same content? This isn't one of those non-peer-reviewed online journals that just publishes anything for money. Yet.

    3. nemecystt

      Re: Erm...

      With respect, have you researched Helion's process using sources of info other than Helion?

      The 3He production from D-D is neutronic.

      Further, D-D side reactions (neutronic) are unavoidable in any 3He-D bult plasma/plasmoid at 100 million Kelvin. Just look at the respective fusion cross-sections.

      There is even the possibility of residual Tritium (you'll not evacuate it all between pulses), formed in the D-D side reactions then giving you some D-T fusion too. This means more neutrons, and higher energy ones at that.

  4. Bill Gray
    Boffin

    Aneutronic fusion

    "...Helion will not be putting a 100 million degree, neutron-spewing reactor of unknown design anywhere in public by 2028"

    Should note that the reason for using He-3 is to avoid spewing neutrons. The idea is that the fusion products are (mostly/almost entirely) charged particles, whose energy can be captured and turned into electrical current directly.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aneutronic_fusion

    Thus, you avoid (most of) the radiation problems and can capture energy much more efficiently. On the other hand, you need a much higher temperature.

    Overall, minus the phrase "neutron-spewing", I concur with the author. For Microsoft, this is about appearing to care about "being green", with no real concern about whether the technology actually works.

    I'm a fairly strong proponent of trying some "out there" methods for energy production, carbon capture, etc., simply because the payoff would be huge. If this had, say, a one in 100 chance of success, it'd be worth trying, because the payoff would be about a thousand to one. You're talking about upending the world's energy supply and ending global warming. If you took that view, Microsoft would have a 99% chance of good PR and a 1% chance of unexpected success. I guess that were I they, I'd put crowbar to wallet and buy in... maybe even if I thought it was 100% and 0%, respectively. (Which I kinda do.)

  5. Kev99 Silver badge

    What will happen with mictosoft's investment in Hellion? Probably the same that mictosoft did to Seattle Computer Products with QDOS an later with Multi-Tool Word.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      You're assuming there is an investment at all.

      As far as I can tell, this is simply a memorandum of understanding.

      It's meaningless because they cannot possibly build a plant in that timescale, and both parties know it. They haven't demonstrated net positive in a lab - they don't even know what a working plant looks like.

      A CCGT plant takes about two years, and that's all off-the-shelf parts.

      If they were breaking ground last year then I'd still be skeptical of it starting up in five years, because the first plant always takes the longest.

  6. DJ
    Joke

    Don't forget about

    Xenix, anyone?

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Don't forget about

      Xenix was forked from Version 7. It was a fission product.

  7. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Making a deal

    Probably some really sweet deal but MS will hold Helion intellectual property as collateral in case it doesn't happen [it won't]. MS really likes getting comfortable with your intellectual property.

  8. Binraider Silver badge

    Has anyone actually seen the contract? Is it to provide 50MW, or specifically, 50MW from an He3 Fusion process?

    The latter is a sueball / out of court settlement waiting to happen. MS wins on delivery or non-delivery.

  9. Snowy Silver badge
    Coat

    Burning the press release.

    Will create more energy than this deal will!

  10. StrangerHereMyself Silver badge

    Article

    This deal isn't even worth writing an article about, it's nothing but hot air.

    Microsoft's motivation is unclear and illogical. Maybe it's a win-win deal for them (they get money whatever happens whilst at the same time getting some "green" publicity) so they don't care one way or another. In the end this deal will only benefit Microsoft a minuscule amount, pocket change.

  11. david 12 Silver badge

    Is there any Cash involved?

    MS is a cloud provider. Helion is a project that requires lots (lots and lots and lots) of compute power. It appears to me that MS can provide value at cost price rather than market price, and that doing so would be not just an investment in an electricity company, but also investment in a potential major demand area.

    And it's an interesting IT question, not just a shareholder question.

    So, what exactly is MS providing? Cash? Software? Cloud? Some other kind of compute?

  12. EBG

    as someone who spend a professional lifetime in technology translation ...

    ... we need far more analysis of this quality in the media. The author poses several essential questions that should be absolutely standard in reporting technology translation claims, but which are always ignored by jurnos cut'n'pasting press releases. Financial "skin in the game". "Innovation" projects as pure PR. Etc..

  13. Alf Garnett

    Build SMRs instead

    Small Modular Reactors can produce the power required to run a datacenter, and the tech already exists. Fission reactors have worked for decades. Also there are designs out that that cannot produce the handful of disasters that have occasionally grabbed headlines in 1979 (Three mile islans) 1986 (Chernobyl) and 2011(Fukushima). Also nuclear power works at night and when the wind isn't blowing. It also produces a given amount of electricity using far less land than the huge tracts of land needed for solar panels and windmills.

    1. Spamfast
      Facepalm

      Re: Build SMRs instead

      It's been calculated that current SMR designs produce considerably more nuclear waste per watt generated than conventional ones. As with those the public will end up having to pay for the clean-up when the company making the reactors dissolves itself over the costs after taking the government subsidies & customers' money and giving it to the upper management and shareholders.

      No historical, current or proposed uranium or plutonium fission reactor has ever made or will make a profit once state subsidy, decommissioning and long term waste storage are factored in to the costs. Building new ones will not help the current climate problem because they won't come online in time and by the time they do, they'll be providing some of the most expensive power on the grid.

      Nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, perhaps using thorium reactions, may be worth pursuing but it's just a distraction to suggest they can help with the pickle into which we've currently gotten ourselves.

      If we are going to state-subsidise the energy industry, we should be removing all the breaks the fossil fuel companies are still getting, take that and all public money currently being spent on new fission build and fusion research and invest that in both the installation of existing renewable capture and storage facilities and research into improving them. This would be faster gain and much lower risk.

      1. Spazturtle Silver badge

        Re: Build SMRs instead

        "It's been calculated that current SMR designs produce considerably more nuclear waste per watt generated than conventional ones."

        A single disputed study said that.

        "Building new ones will not help the current climate problem because they won't come online in time and by the time they do"

        People have been saying that for 30+ years, when if we had started back then we would be carbon neutral by now. And if we don't start building nuclear plants now I'm sure we will still be saying it in another 30 years when the bulk of our energy is still fossil fuel based.

        "they'll be providing some of the most expensive power on the grid."

        The agreed price for Hinkley Point C is 9p per KWh, which is pretty cheap when you look at current energy prices.

      2. nemecystt

        Re: Build SMRs instead

        The trouble is scaling renewables and storage to cover everything including transport and industrial heat, not just domestic 'leccy just wont cut it without killing the planet with mining. There has to be a mix of carbon-free sources, some of which are immediately despatchable and can also be 24-7. Then there's the issue of bringing the third world and others up to the living standards us lucky few enjoy. Some kind of nuclear has to be in that mix. I don't see any alternative, besides perhaps space based solar, but that's another huge can of worms and isn't secure.

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