Startup Helion Energy has this week broken ground on a new facility that will become a crucial testbed for its own take on nuclear fusion, and it hopes a key stepping stone towards the first commercially-viable fusion power plant.
Both the complexity and untold potential of nuclear fusion make it a problem that researchers are tackling from all sorts of angles, all trying to harness a process that takes place inside the Sun. This means using intense heat and pressure to cause collisions between separate atoms that combine into larger ones, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process, along with zero emissions.
Donut-shaped reactors called tokamaks are considered the most viable vehicles to reproduce this process here on Earth, but there other avenues being explored, such as the twisting and turning stellarator design. Helion Energy is pursuing the technology through its own patented plasma accelerator, which uses deuterium and helium-3 fuels as the starting point.
Inside Helion Energy's device, these fuels are heated to extreme temperatures to form plasma, which is then magnetically confined into what the company calls a field reversed configuration (FRC). Two FRCs are formed at opposite ends of the accelerator, and are then smashed together at a speed of one million mph (1.6 million km/h) using magnets to create a spectacular collision in the center.
Here they are further compressed with powerful magnets and heated until they reach temperatures of 100 million °C (180 million °F), finally causing the deuterium and helium-3 to fuse together, forming an expanding plasma that pushes back on the magnetic field to induce a current that can be collected as electricity.