The announcement comes just days after the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) published the latest series of DOE Liftoff Reports on decarbonizing the industrial sector, a few months after Helion announced the world’s first fusion energy Power Purchase Agreement (“PPA”) with Microsoft for a 50 MWe+ fusion facility by 2028, and less than a year after the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain.
The industrial sector is historically difficult to abate, which we have previously discussed (here, here, and here) and this announcement demonstrates that industrial companies are willing to try new technologies to provide affordable, reliable carbon free power. In fact, the Helion/Dow project joins a number of other interesting projects in the industrial space using energy from the atom—for example, advanced nuclear reactor developer X-energy is working with Dow Chemical to site an X-energy reactor at a Dow chemical plant in Texas to provide carbon free power and process heat.
Details and significance of the Helion/Nucor announcement
In a first-of-a-kind partnership between a major industrial company and a fusion start up, the 500 MWe facility would be deployed by 2030, and the amount of electricity it would produce would be on par with a conventional power plant. Nucor is also investing $35M in Helion, to add to the significant private capital Helion has already raised.
Helion’s business milestones are supported by significant technical ones as well. The company has achieved 100-million-degree plasma temperatures and is currently building its seventh prototype, Polaris, which is expected in the near term to be the first device to demonstrate electricity generated from fusion.
“Nucor continues to position itself as a leader in developing clean energy solutions to decarbonize the industrial sector. This agreement with Helion, along with recent investments in clean energy, can change the entire energy landscape and forever change the world, embracing a clean energy future we could have hardly imagined a few years ago,” said Leon Topalian, Chair, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Nucor Corporation in its Press Release. “We believe in the technology Helion is building and are proud to make this investment." Nucor and its affiliates are manufacturers of steel and steel products, with operating facilities in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and Nucor is also North America's largest recycler.
“We're passionate about helping the world reduce its dependence on carbon-based energy sources with abundant, clean fusion power," said David Kirtley, CEO of Helion in its Press Release. "We are excited to partner with Nucor, a leader in decarbonization in the steel industry. A project like this is only made possible by working with a forward-looking company like Nucor which is committed to decreasing its carbon emissions.”
More details on the Helion/Microsoft PPA
The Helion/Nucor announcement comes a few months after it was announced that global technology company Microsoft has signed a Power Purchase Agreement with Helion for the provision of electricity from its first 50 MW+ fusion power plant in 2028. Constellation Energy will serve as the power marketer and will manage transmission for the project.
In referring to the Microsoft announcement, Helion CEO David Kirtley said, "This collaboration represents a significant milestone for Helion and the fusion industry as a whole. We are grateful for the support of a visionary company like Microsoft. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are confident in our ability to deliver the world's first fusion power facility."
"We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy," said Brad Smith, Vice Chair and President at Microsoft, which aims to be carbon-negative by 2030. "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."
About the DOE Liftoff reports
On September 18, 2023, “DOE published three new reports as part of its “Pathways to Commercial Liftoff” initiative, focused on the state of industrial decarbonization—which includes the steel industry.
The goal of these new DOE Liftoff reports is to provide a guide to a private sector-led, industry-wide decarbonization effort that is deeper and faster than it would otherwise be, and that directly benefits communities by emphasizing environmental justice and the creation of good jobs. This latest series includes three separate topical reports: (1) Industrial Decarbonization; (2) Decarbonizing Chemicals & Refining; and (3) Low-Carbon Cement.
The new reports provide an overview on the pathways to decarbonization across eight industrial sectors of focus: chemicals, refining, food & beverage processing, pulp and paper, cement, aluminum, and glass, and iron & steel which are the eight industrial sectors of focus in the Inflation Reduction Act.
About fusion generally
Commercial fusion has seen significant advancements in the past couple of years in terms of technological milestones, private capital investments, and commercial development. One of the most highly visible developments that broadly reached mainstream news occurred last December when DOE announced a major scientific breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility (“NIF”) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which had successfully produced a nuclear fusion reaction resulting in a net energy gain.
Fusion energy, the process that powers the sun and stars, has long been viewed as the “holy grail” of energy production, with the promise to produce immense amounts of clean energy, but has long proved elusive for researchers and developers, especially getting at least as much, if not more, energy out of the reaction than went in to making it—what is known as “breakeven” fusion. Unlike fission, which splits atoms apart, fusion is the process of producing electricity by bringing (or fusing) atoms together, which produces massive amounts of energy. This reaction occurs every day to power the sun and stars, which generally fuse around 500 tons of hydrogen atoms every second. Replicating this reaction on Earth may mean we could create a supply of unlimited clean energy. And the result of the latest NIF experiment is a big step in a long quest to develop an infinite source of clean energy to help end dependence on fossil fuels and provide an affordable electricity source.
Fusion devices share many common traits which would make them an ideal source of baseload electricity—carbon free energy, immense amount of reliable electricity, compact size, affordability, turn on/off on demand, and they have a low environmental impact. Fusion is fueled by an abundant isotope of hydrogen, which keeps fuel accessible and enables energy security for all.
In March 2022, the White House held a summit on the “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy,” to bring electrons from fusion devices to the grid within a decade. Post author Amy Roma, a speaker at the White House event, explained at the time:
We’re looking at one of the biggest problem-solving challenges that society has ever faced, and that’s decarbonization and climate change. Currently the majority of power around the world is generated overwhelmingly from fossil fuels. At the same time where we have to decarbonize the existing power supply that we have, there are nearly a billion people in the world that don’t have access to electricity. We have a huge opportunity here with fusion, if it can be clean, reliable, and affordable, to be a transformative energy source to combat climate change and provide clean energy to the nearly one billion people who don’t have access to electricity right now.
We have also discussed other aspects related to commercializing fusion in a number of past papers and posts, including discussing the regulatory framework needed to support the developing fusion industry in a paper titled The Regulation of Fusion - A Practical and Innovation-Friendly Approach, two papers presented at the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Regulation of Fusion—and Innovation Friendly Approach and Nuclear Fission and Fusion Power in Space, another post on fusion and space, a summary of the NRC’s evaluation of the regulatory framework for fusion, a summary of a recent Senate letter to the NRC on fusion, and we have a draft paper undergoing peer review on Nonproliferation and Fusion Power Plants.