Local startup Helion Energy said Tuesday it will build a facility in Everett to test the latest version of its “fusion energy” generator, a project it said has the potential to create electricity without producing any carbon emissions.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who joined company officials and Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin at the announcement, said the technology could be a “world-shaking” contribution to transforming how energy is produced. “We are dependent on the success of this company. … We are being ravaged by the carbon pollution and climate change,” he said.
The facility, which Helion says will bring 150 new jobs to Everett, is the next step toward its goal of building the world’s first commercial fusion power facility. The company currently employs 55 and is based in Redmond but said it will be moving its headquarters to Everett.
Helion’s technology involves a machine that creates an excruciatingly hot chamber in which pairs of atoms are fused together, releasing energy that can be turned into electricity. Unlike “fission,” in which a large atom is split to produce power inside a nuclear reactor, Helion said its fusion technology generates no long-lived radioactive waste or dangerous byproducts.
The company last month said it made history when it became the first private company to create conditions exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius, the temperature necessary for fusion to occur.
Helion intends to use the new facility to house the seventh prototype of its fusion reactor, and also to commercially produce a specialized form of helium “for the first time ever here on Earth,” said David Kirtley, founder and CEO of Helion Energy. Helium-3, as it’s known, is an “ultra-rare” ingredient necessary for Helion’s fusion energy process. It is more abundant on the moon than it is on Earth.
“If you can make Helium-3 here on Earth, given how much it’s worth, that’s a business in and of itself,” said Jacob Leachman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Washington State University who has researched fusion energy. “That would be important for a number of scientific interests.”
Helion raised $40 million in a September fundraising round led by Dustin Moskovitz, one of Facebook’s co-founders. Mithril Capital Management, founded by billionaire Peter Thiel, also has previously invested in Helion. The United States Department of Energy has also supported the company through grants.
Helion’s new facility is expected to be completed early next year.
Fusion energy has gotten significant attention from investors in recent years. Jeff Bezos has backed British Columbia-based General Fusion, and Bill Gates has backed Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems, both companies also aimed at using fusion energy to create electricity.
But there are challenges, said Carolyn Kuranz, an associate professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan. Cost is a major hurdle that fusion companies will have to address. She pointed out that fission energy, which is the basis for all nuclear power plants, required significant investment from the government. Fusion energy might require the same, she said.
One way Helion is addressing high costs is by producing its own Helium-3 in a cost-effective way, Kirtley said at the announcement. In an interview, he added Helion’s system turns fusion energy directly into electricity without having to use steam turbines or boiling water as intermediate steps that are often quite expensive. “That dramatically reduces the capital costs,” he said.
Kirtley said the goal is for the company’s fusion systems to produce three times the amount of energy that has to be put in to operate the machinery.
Kirtley did not offer a timeline for having the technology commercially available. Inslee said questions around sales timelines are like “asking the Wright brothers, ‘When are you going to have the [Boeing] 737?'”
“They’re creating a whole new industry here,” he added.
Washington, which has seen the debilitating effects of climate change this summer with a historic heat wave and wildfires, has set aggressive climate goals since Inslee took office in 2013. The Clean Energy Transformation Act, passed in 2019, mandates that the state’s electrical utilities phase out fossil fuel power production that releases fossil fuel emissions by 2045.
Inslee said policies like these “create the demand for clean energy,” which provide incentive for companies like Helion to keep developing their technology.
The state has not yet talked to Helion about any direct support for the work they’re doing, said Inslee, but “on a scale that [Helion] is at, we need the federal government to step up to the plate.”
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.