Two major tech investors have plowed $1.5 million into Helion Energy to help it develop a technology that hasn't worked, despite decades of research and millions of research dollars.
Most of the money, $1.25 million, was given by Mithril Capital Management, a venture capital firm in San Francisco. Mithril co-founder Ajay Royan says his company pays special interest to "state-shift companies," those that represent revolutionary change in their industries. Helion, he said, is one of them.
No company, big or small, has yet to build a reactor that can sustain nuclear fusion, a process that generates more energy than it consumes. Still, Royan says Helion, of Redmond, Wash., is unique because of its concrete approach.
This approach, Royan says, includes Helion's reliance on reactor hardware that already is available or soon will be. He also points to the limited success that Helion already has made, and its meticulous timetable for future developments.
Further, Royan said, Helion approaches the challenge as an engineering problem, not some groping reach for a nebulous goal involving unknown or untested principles of physics.
"My criteria is we should have no miracle physics, we should have minimal or no neutron discharge – so that we're not coming up on the same regulatory and safety concerns associated with traditional fission or even other fusion approaches," he says. "And [Helion has] shown ... how they can rationally get there."
Here's how Helion approaches the fusion problem: The reactor turns two lumps of deuterium fuel into plasma, and then rams them together in a specially designed chamber. Next, a magnetic field compresses this merged plasma, heating it to a temperature of over 100 million degrees to fuse the deuterium with helium nuclei left over in the chamber from previous heating cycles.
This fusion releases charged subatomic particles that push back on the force of the magnetic field, converting the superheated plasma directly into electricity, which powers the process for another cycle. Each cycle lasts one second and can be used to create a 50-megawatt reactor.
Helion will need more than the $1.5 million raised from Mithril and another investor, Y Combinator. Royan says the company needs to create a working prototype of its reactor design – a "pre-commercial prototype that would then go into a power plant." That will probably take another five years or so, at a cost of between $30 million and $50 million.
The question remains whether all this is a Helion pipe dream. Royan says no, the company's approach is based not on a mere theory, but is firmly grounded in proven materials and electronics that have matured in the past five years.
"I don't think we'd have funded this company the way it's currently set up three to five years ago," Royan says. "But we are glad to do so now."