Matt and Sean discuss start-ups’ fusion energy plans, their timetable, and their potential. We also talk to Helion Energy’s CEO, David Kirtley about their technology.
Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “Why Nuclear Fusion is Closer Than You Think”: https://youtu.be/yNP8by6V3RA?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi4dFnLD9622FK77atWtQVv7
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I call him Matthew, but you know him better as Matt undecided with Matt Ferrell. Matt, how you doing today? I’m doing pretty
well. How about yourself? How’s the weekend?
I’m doing okay. We’ve got our first winter like weather moving in. Mm-hmm. from the west past through Buffalo, dropping lots of snow and I’m not anticipating any snow here in New York City, but we’ve got wind like you wouldn’t believe.
And my little backyard, which has a little tiny drain to make sure that little tiny raindrops have somewhere to go when they drop out of the sky is being plagued by leaves. So after this recording, guess who’s going out in the backyard with a garbage bag to gather? Said leaves , you’re looking forward to
it a bit.
Uh, it is having a yard that you have to rake. Is like, understandably like it’s work. You wake up in the morning, you look out and you’re like, ah, I gotta go rake those leaves. My little patio is literally a little concrete block, Uhhuh , and somehow the way the wind vortex vortexes work in this neighborhood, we will get a million leaves in this little tiny concrete block.
Mm-hmm. . But if you wait, the wind might shift and then sudden. All the leaves will be gone. Who knows where they’ve gone, who knows where they came from. So it’s all about, it’s like, it’s like a roulette wheel. It’s like gambling you, like you see the marble bouncing along the, the circle of the roulette wheel and you’re just hoping it comes up black.
So I’ll look out there and be like, you got, there’s so many leaves out there, and. I’m putting on my coat the other day to go out and clean up those leaves and my partner says, oh, they all blew away. And I look out there and there’s not a leaf in sight. And then you just go, job well done. And I hang my coat back up and I’m like, well, I deserve a break.
So there’s tons of leaves back there. I keep my eye on the forecast like, is rain in the offing? Cuz if it’s not, fingers crossed, the wind shifts and. They disappear . But enough about that. Let’s talk about some of our recent discussions. We have some comments from a recent episode. This is from our episode 1 43, unity Homes.
Matts factory built Net Zero Home, and there was this comment from he Kron who wrote, whenever I pass yet another home building site and see bricks, hundreds and thousands of bricks, I find myself wondering, why are they still doing it this. Always heartening to see human genius and rational people of goodwill making the world a better place now and for the future.
Interesting to note that when companies release open source source software, and here’s another instance, it makes things better for everyone. Thanks for sharing your journey and your home build. Certainly looking forward to more. And let me comment also on the naming of your channel. It’s brilliant. It perfectly describes where an inquiring mind will find itself even after discussions are made.
And then he followed up a few comments later with this. Oops. I was actually commenting on undecided as the title of your channel. Yeah, but it applies equally here, of course. So I appreciated helmet, you coming in, weighing in with such a positive response to Matt’s video, and then following up with a positive response to our conversation about said video.
And we hope you’ll drop by. I appreciate that. So for today’s episode, we have two things in the offing. First, a very brief discussion between Matt and me about why I’m such a great guy. And then, I’m sorry, those are the wrong notes. We’re having a discussion about Matt’s most recent episode, which is why nuclear fusion is closer than you think.
This is from November 15th, 2022. After our brief discussion, We’re going to drop in a long extended version of Matt’s interview with David Kirtley from Helion. So yes. Before we get to the Helion interview, I wanted to visit some of the conversation around the video itself, around Fusion, and there was some interesting discussion like this from Lauren Hunt who had a kind of beefy comment, and I wanna share.
in its entirety because I think it’s very interesting. Lawrence writes, thank you, Matt. I spent about three years studying 34 fusion energy projects around the world. So first of all, Matt Lawrence might be somebody to reach out to. That’s a resource regarding the variety of projects out there. As you point out, most are variations of the taco.
Which has many inherent problems, which you allude to in the present video. The varying approaches of the three initiatives here are among those that caught my attention while doing my own research. However, the project I found to be the most promising wasn’t mentioned by you. Today, I’m referring to the HB 11 energy in Australia.
While funded so far on a shoestring budget, all the components of the model have been demonstrated in the lab. In published peer reviewed scientific papers using Nobel Prize, winning off the shelf, chirped pulse amplified laser technology. HB 11 proposes to produce electrical current rather than heat.
While this overlaps with Helion, it’s fundamentally different. Why first? Ponder motive fusion of hydrogen and boron 11 produces three helium nuclei. The positive charge from instantaneous combination fusion of the reactance, the reaction is so rapid that heat is not a byproduct. Side note, for myself, I found that fascinating that it’s too fast to generate heat.
The positively charged alpha particles can be used to generate an electrical current through closing a circuit with the electron separated from the atoms and the reaction. Second, neither the reactant nor the products are radioactive. Contrast this to all the reactions using Darian and Tridium, which emit neutron radiation and fusion reaction, and also interact with carbon in the at.
And the human body. Three. While a magnetic field is required to contain the channel and the products, there is no plasma nor heat to contain channel or stabilize. To summarize, you put in simple hydrogen, no deter or tridium, and born 11, and you get out an electrical current. No heat is produced. There are no steam turbines or plasma contained required.
There is no radioactivity going in or coming out, and of course, there’s no carbon as an added node. HB 11 energy is almost never mentioned by anyone seeking to educate the public about fusion energy. I’d like to see you dig into the HB 11 energy story, particularly as he bring a particular brand of clarity to all of your stories.
I thought that was a fascinat. Rundown, yeah. Of this, this tech. Had you heard about this? Is there something about this that had caught or not caught your eye? Was there a reason why you didn’t talk
about it? It had.
I had completely forgotten about it a few years ago. I had read something about HB 11 head notes about it, and then those got shuffled away and I completely forgot about it.
And if I had remembered, I probably would’ve included them in this video. But from this comment, and he wasn’t the only one that brought this up, the whole idea of lasers and, uh, fusion power like this, I, I, I definitely wanna look into this more. So a for follow up video, I, I may actually do something on this.
Because it’s very interesting. It’s a, it’s a totally different approach, and it’s one of the reasons I made this video, which was look at all the different ways that people are trying to approach this problem. And how they’re trying to get to it. And it has nothing to do with, uh, what’s the Q factor of, you know, because infusion, they talk about Q factor and energy gain and, you know, engineering gain and all these other kinds of terms that for the public are like, I don’t understand.
It sounds like, oh wow, you’re making huge progress and you actually look at what that means and it’s like, oh no, you’re still way far away. Yeah. So. There’s a problem with the communication between the public and academia and these companies and HB 11 are, is probably one of those companies I would put in that group are trying to solve for positive electricity generation for the public.
Yeah. Is what they’re trying to get to. And it’s not about, Proving out different aspects of fusion. It’s about making something a reality and trying to solve those with clever engineering and figuring out the physics of what their approach is trying to make, bring it sooner than later. And HB 11 is definitely one of those groups.
Yeah, I’d be very interested if you were able to revisit this with another cohort of mm-hmm. options. You started with these three. Maybe there’d be an opportunity to do another two or three and include HB 11 at that time. Yeah. So thank you so much, Lawrence, for that comment. And then I also wanted to share this comment, which was a direct response to Lawrence’s comment.
This one came from Glen Luellen who wrote, I changed the oil in my lawnmower yesterday. Normally I’d go with five weight oil, but as we are coming into summer, I went with semi-synthetic 10 weight instead. Hope this helps. So , thank you for that, Glen. Geez. I also wanted to share this comment from Scott’s Mad Science and more.
Scott shared a few notes around some issues that he had with the physics of what you discussed as, and he weighed in as a physicist and wrote, mm-hmm. These four basically correctives to things that you had said in your video. Fission reactors are not inherently susceptible to meltdowns and explosions.
Breeder reactors could solve Fission reactors, waste issue. These are things I know that you talked about in the past. The overall safety of Fission reactors, the history of it. We don’t have a huge list of Fission reactor problems, but when we do have a Fission reactor problem, it’s a huge. Yes. So the handful of times that we’ve had those issues have been catastrophic.
That’s the issue with the Fision reactor. Yes. And you have talked in the past about breeder reactors where they take the byproduct of the fision reaction, feed it back, use it as a fuel and reuse it, and effectively can accelerate the use of the fuel down. Almost zero. Is that correct? Correct. Yeah. Yes.
There was also this from Scott who wrote Fusion does actually create nuclear waste. It releases neutrons that activate other materials. So that was a point of clarity that I do believe you. Included in your video, but he, he wanted to hammer that home.
I, I, I will say we kind of glossed over it kind of quickly, right.
So it’s, it was probably missed by some people, and I probably should not have done that. put it that way.
He also wanted to point out that Tridium is not a naturally occurring resource. Yep. And finally, he points out that all of these issues that he’s just dealt. He believes science will be able to address them given the time and resources.
So yes, this was, his comment was definitely not one of an aggressive contradiction to your video. He was just weighing in with what he thought was dropping their knowledge, providing some additional knowledge for your, for your viewers.
I love it. I love it when people like him come in and they drop that knowledge in that way.
It’s super constructive, super helpful, and the audience members often know, Dramatically more about this than I do, and I love that they’re contributing that way. And on on the note about radioactivity of there are radioactive elements that come out of fusion. My understanding of this, the lifespan of that radioactive element that’s coming out of some types of fusion has a much shorter lifespan than a halflife, than what’s coming outta Fision.
So you can have stuff coming outta fision that will last for thousands of years. Versus things that come out of fusion that might break down within 20, 30, 50 years and become safe to handle and dispose of. So there’s very different amounts of quantity and radio activity that we’re talking about here.
So it’s, it’s
not a major
apple scale. Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s not completely apples to apples.
Yeah. I appreciate seeing all the comments too, from very knowledgeable viewers. Yes. And I think that this is, A good place to point out that the, the place that Matt, and I’m gonna put words into his mouth right now and he can tell me if I’m putting the wrong words into his mouth, where Matt’s channel and where this channel, as a byproduct of his channel stand is at the gap between the, the knowledge.
Scientists, the researchers and the lay people on the other side. Basically the general public and his channel in this channel stand at that gap, hoping to be maybe a bridge to get some of that information from one side to the other. As Matt pointed out a little bit earlier in this discussion, just coincidentally, There is a, there is sometimes a communication failure between the people who are doing this work, what they’re trying to achieve, what they think their, their scope of time and effort looks like, and what the public anticipates and what the public knows and assumptions are made on both sides.
And that lack of communication, that lack of understanding leads to sometimes outright dismissal. Sometimes it leads to. Expectations that can never be met. Sometimes it leads to products that don’t meet the expected goal and that confusion can derail a project. And this becomes a problem when you’re talking about projects that are gonna require not only public support, but public support that manifests as interest from policy makers, legislators, or political leaders.
If the public doesn’t understand a. Then how is that public motivation going to turn into action that will support some of these new industries that we’re talking about? So I think that that’s where Matt and I is trying to stand is to say like, oh, these people over here think something is happening. Is it actually happening or is there.
Some miscommunication happening. Yep. So in that vein, I think it’s a great opportunity for us now to jump into Matt’s longer discussion with the individual from Helion. That would be David Kirtley. So we’re happy to present you with that full discussion right now.
So, hi David. Thank you for, uh, being willing to talk to me today.
I was hoping you could just kind of give a little introduction about yourself and Helion, how it got started.
Hi there. Good morning. Yes. I’m Dr. David Kirtley, CEO of Helion Energy. Uh, Helion was founded by, A core team of four scientists and engineers that had been working for a lot of years on related space, repulsion fusion for the Department of Energy, uh, and material science development programs.
And we had approach to fusion, which I’m sure we’re gonna get into today, where we were able to. For it in a, in a small system show that we could do fusion and do it in a useful way for generating electricity. So we spun off Helion to go fully private, raise venture capital and start building the big
machines that we’ve built today.
Can you talk about the, the technique that you’re using for fusion is a, is a little different from what we typically think of when we think of fusion. We think of like iter and the gigantic like donut shaped to Mac reactors. Oh, you’re using, what is it? What’s it’s field reverse configuration. That’s what you’re using.
Why did you settle on that?
Yeah, so this is, I think, a unique thing about Helion and the way we approach and think about fusion. Our goal is, and I think everybody at Fusion’s goal, but specifically at Helion, we’re focused on getting to electricity as soon as possible. So we looked at the whole. And not just the specific physics around the fusion plasma physics for the fuel, but the whole system to get to electricity as soon as.
So our approach to fusion uses something called magnetic compression of field, reverse configuration plasmas. Lot of mouthful, a lot of a mouthful of words there. Um, but really our focus is how can we using pulse magnetic fields, um, no. So no moving parts. Get to get energy into a fusion fuel as efficiently as.
Make fusion happen, release energy from the fusion process, and most importantly, get electricity out of that whole system as efficiently as possible so that we can build fusion systems smaller and faster. And
correct me if I’m wrong, in my understanding of this, is one of the ways that you’re getting electricity is you’re getting it directly from the reaction because you’re getting, it’s, I read a description where it was like a piston, it’s like creating the magnetic field is.
Adjusted. And so that’s creating an electrical field that you can actually turn into electricity directly. Is that correct?
That’s correct. Um, we know, we know the physics of fusion. We can see it in the sun every day releasing energy. But our goal here on earth from Fusion is to make electricity with it Helio’s approach to what we call direct energy recovery is that we use a magdy.
Recovery. But what that specifically means, a good analogy is like a piston, although no moving parts. In this case where we have large pulse magnetic fields that compress a fusion plasma idio, automatically the fusion fuel increasing pressure, temperature fusion starts to happen. Fusion particles are born inside that magnetic field and apply a pressure.
So that’s where your piston analogy totally applies, where that internal pressure pushes back on the magnetic field, and then we recover that. From that changing magnetic field directly, and we’ve been able, in our previous system, show that we could put energy into a magnetic field and recover it very, very efficiently.
Over 90% efficiency, over 95% efficiency. And that enables us to build fusion systems a lot faster and smaller.
So are you also capturing the heat? That’s also generated from the
reaction. That’s a very good question. So in fu the, the actual, and we can dig into the fusion physics, but uh, in fusion, a lot of what you’re doing is you’re taking lightweight isotopes of hydrogen, and in our case, hydrogen and helium, you fuse them into larger, heavier.
Atoms, uh, in this case, helium atoms. Um, and as they’re fused into these new atoms, those atoms are born with a tremendous amount of, of energy, of temperature. And so you have the opportunity for these, these charged particles, these plasmas in a magnetic field to take their temperature, energy, literally their motion.
And that is, that pushes back on the magnetic field. It applies a pressure. And so in fact, we are electro automatically taking that energy, but we’re also taking it from the.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but like when I was, I’ve been digging into this topic more about specifically like the FRC research that has been done in the past, and it looked like it was really, there’s a lot of interest in it in like in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
And then they kind of like waned and people weren’t looking at it for power generation, but were looking at it for like propulsion. Why the, why the sudden kind of like not sudden in the past, what, decade or two, why in the two thousands is there a lot more interest in frc again, like why the, why did it fade away?
Why did it come back? Were there advances that made it more viable, a better understanding? Like,
what was it? What I like to say is that our approach to fusion using pulse magnetic fields to compress fusion plasma and recover that energy, um, directly is not a new. In fact, some of the earliest ideas of fusion were to do methods very much like this, um, in the 1950s and sixties.
Before the transistor existed before large scale, our ability to control electricity in significant ways happened. Uh, and so it took the intervening decades Moore’s law even for us to get to a place where now we can control electricity in the magnitudes and the time scales you need to do fusion. So why we do, why we we’re looking at this now?
Large scale semiconductors that can, um, commute. They can switch, uh, millions of amps of current at tens of kilovolts and do it in millions of a second in microseconds. That’s the kind of switching and power technology we needed to be able to do pulse magnetic fusion the way we do. Gotcha. And so now we can buy early in, in my career, when we started this, we just saw the curve of what was going to come, and we started working on tabletop, uh, designs and engineering, anticipating they would be commercial products, but now we can buy commercial, the technology still at the cutting edge of semiconductors that allow us to apply the millions of amps and tens of thousands of volts.
So literally gigawatts of peak power into these these, to compressing a fusion plasma to get it all the way up to fusion conditions. So it
really does sound like it was, it’s you’re always building on the shoulders of those that you came before you. It’s just that ever moving forward, understanding, being able to pull this stuff off in an affordable way that’s kind of.
We’re at the point now where you were predicting you’d be probably 20 years ago. ,
the analogy I like to think about is the electric car, is that people have envisioned the electric car since, you know, um, before the gasoline engine, the electric car was envisioned. In fact, we built some systems, but it really took the modern lithium battery.
It took very high efficiency motor. Uh, energy recovery. In fact, being able to recover, you know, your regenerative braking and all of those technologies that come together to make the electric car a commercially viable system. And that’s infusion and especially our approach to fusion. It took the physics work that.
We and others did in the field reverse configuration, these high beta plasmas and a whole bunch of sub of technologies. I haven’t even talked about fiber optics yet and the keys that, that is enabling. We can get to that too, but there’s a whole bunch of those engineering technologies that had to be reach commercial maturity before we could.
We could really. Think of making generators out of these systems. Let’s get to that right now.
What is it about fiber optics? Like how’s that playing a
role? Yeah, so the, uh, fundamentally infusion physics when you have a fuel that’s operating and we, we, we published last year that we had reached over a hundred million degrees, the first private company to.
Across that threshold. But fundamentally what that also means is that these high temperature gases move really quickly and plasmas. That means you have to be very fast in millions of a second, be able to respond to the fusion plasma or you lose it. And so you have to be able to, to turn on systems and trigger them, uh, essentially to, to apply these magnetic compressing forces and do it in millions of a second.
And in less than a microsecond, you have to be able to control these things. So we talk about tens of nanoseconds, and so that’s gigahertz now, and it’s all electromagnetic, so a bunch of wires going everywhere. It’s actually really hard to do. You have magnetic coupling and other concerns. And so being able to do it via fiber optics, fiber optic switching, fiber optic diagnostics really is, is a key.
And so, I mean, Uh, we all know that that gigahertz networks, gigahertz, fiber optics, nanosecond response times, that’s off the shelf technology now. But 20 years ago it wasn’t. It was actually very, very hard to do. It took a lot of scientific, uh, rigor to be able to build systems that fast. And 20 years before that, it wasn’t even theoretically possible.
So in your, your, you currently are building, was it Polaris? It’s your seventh generation, uh, reactor.
Is that the case? Yeah, so Polaris is our seventh Generat, our seventh generation prototype that will do fusion. We’ve had other prototypes in addition to that where we’re subsystems and those things, but this is our seventh one to fu to, to get up to millions of degrees and up to a hundred million degrees and higher temperatures do fusion, and then measure the fusion products being made.
And this is the one that’s going to, is this the one that’s gonna show a positive energy gain, a positive electricity generation?
So our goal there is to show electricity and that’s other people have showed positive energy in, in a, in a format that’s hard to capture or hard to use. And our goal is let’s focus all the way on electricity and do it from the beginning so that what we’re making, the physics we’re proving gets to electricity.
So Polaris should show that we can make electricity from Fusion for the first
time. Yeah. That actually brings me a broader question I had for you. Typical. As a layperson on the outside, what do you, what is your feeling on how there’s a lot of reporting around Q Factor reporting and these scientific breakthroughs and milestones that are hit that while they’re huge from a layperson’s perspective, it’s not clearly communicated.
And what you just talked about right there is you’re focused on positive electricity generation, which is the full cycle of everything. What, what’s your view on the reporting on fusion that’s been
happening? Yeah, I, I think it is a, it is tough subject to talk about because there is a lot of complexity there.
This, even this idea of when you fuse particle, uh, fusion fuel together and you make, and you, and you and makes a heavier atom. Where is the heat? Where is the energy? What is the energy in a charge particle? It’s hard to talk about and hard to describe. So we’ve had, over the last year, couple of years now, the National Ignition Facility, for instance, has done, has made breakthroughs now of energy greater than one, getting to the hints of ignition for the first time.
But it opens up, uh, the scientific definitions that the field has been using for a long time of q in the fuel Q, plasma Q engineer. There’s many versions of it. So when we talk about fusion, we try to stay away from those things and just say, you know, electricity, we wanna talk about jewels of electricity and watts of electricity in that, doing fusion in a way that doesn’t lead to a generator and do it quickly, doesn’t, doesn’t answer the climate change and the other mission driven things that we care about, the
You wanna have a power plant that is using one of these producing electricity for the public. That’s right. Yeah. So back to Polaris. When is it expect, when are you expecting to have it up and running? Testing things and when are you, what’s your, I know this is gonna be a moving target, but what is your goal for, what’s the milestone that you’re looking for for achieving that goal of electricity
Yep. So we, the Pilar system, we broke ground on the building a little over a year ago. Finished the building this year and are in installing equipment now to, to build the pilar generator goal is, By the end of 2024, we have fully built that system. We are running it, we’ve been running it for a while, um, and show that we can get electricity out enough to power light bulb, uh, out of that system and show that the viability of, of the, the, the fusion physics and the engineering of all of this energy recovery system.
That’s a really a demonstration of that electricity component that paves the way for following commercial systems. Um, we are not predicting yet, and, and. How long that’s going to take to get commercial electricity on the grid, or being very thoughtful about those and, and over promising those. Um, but, but that’s our goal.
And then, and moving as fast as we can to it. Are you
already planning the next version beyond the seventh chan? Yeah. So,
so that’s, that’s a, a, an approach that Helion we focused on when we spun off, he. Is, how do we move to solve climate change, get electricity on the grid, if that’s our focus as soon as possible.
And that means doing things in parallel. So for instance, our sixth generation system, Trent, is still operational. We run it, um, multiple days a week in the evenings. We’re doing fusions, still learning as much as we can from that system while we’re building the seventh generation and the early computer simulations of the eighth generation are being done.
And so it’s, it’s a bit of a, of a complex operation, but the goal is the same way Modern Aerospace is building rockets the same way Silicon Valley is building cars. We need to be doing a lot of those development efforts in parallel so that we can be moving as fast as possible, still informing the next generation, but not waiting on, um, on the typical the historical design build cycle, reporting cycle, and then start again.
Design. That, that, that in, in, we found that, that, that really stretches out timelines.
Are you using any, um, machine learning and computer modeling to help in the design of those future systems, like iterating things quicker in the computer versus building it
out? Yeah, so that’s a very good question and we think about.
How, again, if speed and getting electricity on the grid is our goal, how do we speed these systems up? And so modern optimization and machine learning is really, is, is important. Um, what we found is it’s not ready at the place where we can dynamically control the system. In a, that has to happen less than a millionth of a second.
There’s a lot of computation that has to happen, so we can’t dynamically control those systems. But in the design of them, we can. And so we do have, uh, several, several engineers and scientists on a program to how to optimize our electrical circuits, our timing. So all those fiber optics I talked about have to all be triggered in, in these sub nanosecond time scales.
And so being able to, to do that, do the optimization and the development for the design. And then once we’re operating the machine, trying to get predictive about how to operate all these machines and make sure that they’re optimizing, they’re working as efficiently as possible, I think. For Helion, one of our goals has been efficiency.
Efficiency of energy in efficiency of electricity out. And so being able to optimize circuits, magnetic topologies, geo physical geometry, those things we spend a lot of effort doing, um, so that we don’t have to have harder physics, the fusion physics is the hard part. Mm-hmm. , we wanna minimize the, the heart, the fusion physics by doing good engineering.
And I actually listened
to something that’s, I, there was somebody else I was talking to that brought. When it comes to all these different ways that we’re coming at fusion, depending on which one you choose, one may have more engineering knowns and more physics unknowns, and then there are other paths that are more physics unknowns.
You know, it’s like flips depending which, it’s either physics or engineering that you’re having to spend more time on because there’s more unknowns around one side or the other. Where, where for you would you say Helion is? Is it more physics unknowns, or is it, and you got the engineering nailed, or is it more engineering unknowns and you kind of have the physics at hand?
Yeah, I think our focus has been on leveraging, hard engineering as much as possible to reduce the unknowns of the fusion physics. Um, we’ve been building fusion systems, a variety of magnetic topologies and, and, and types for a long time. So we know how the fusion physics works up to a level. So, for instance, the National Ignition Facility is getting to ignition for the first time, but what happens after ig?
It’s still a big fusion physics unknown. So Helio’s goal was, we don’t want ignition, I don’t wanna have to get to, even as far as the National Ignition Facility is trying to do, I wanna focus on, on modern electronics, which are very efficient, high speed electronics, which are very fast. Focusing on taking those technologies from all industries, applying them to fusion so that I can build systems that are, don’t require the hard.
Physics of ignition don’t require a lot of those things that the, the fusion physics community is still trying to understand and model correctly. That’s
fascinating, . I love that. So I, you already kind of touched on this. You said that you’re running the existing prototype you have now several times a week.
Uh, how often, like, I’m, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around like, when you have a finished thing that’s working and it’s a commercial plant, how often is this thing going to have to fire the, to create this reaction? To create a consistent amount of power coming out of it. Like how fast will this be working?
question. And this comes to a lot of, uh, the, the methodology of focusing on the engineering so that you can minimize the physics risk, um, and. In a pulse magnetic system, one of the, the unique benefits in both the design, the operation, and then eventually in the commercial operation, the system is that it’s pulsed itself.
And so you can do a single pulse and learn everything you want to know about the, the physics of the fusion reaction and not have to address a lot of the challenging engineering thermal concerns, lifetime concerns, all of those types of materials, things that, that we, we, you know, we focus on in the engineering development a lot.
So Trent, Is running right now. Uh, we fire it about every 10 minutes. So about about every 600 seconds we fire that machine doing fusion. Um, compressing a fusion plasma over a hundred million degrees, taking data on it, learning about how it operated, optimizing it, tweaking parameters, um, that it for our fusion systems, a commercial system will want to get from once every 600 seconds to at least once a second.
Wow. That’s a big in, that’s a big engineering. And so we have a, we have a whole team of thermal engineers, structural engineers, reliability engineers, looking at how to build these systems repetitively, pulsed, and running steady. We have. Um, shown in the past at Subscale, we can run four months on end at tens or hundreds of times a second at subscale.
And so now we’re working on, okay, we have great, let’s, we did it at Subscale, now let’s do it at full scale, running once a second and, and then, and then start doing the fusion physics once a second too. And so that’s that, that allows us, and as we stage our prototypes, That’s one of the main differences between Polaris, which we’re building now, and what comes after is how long it’s designed to run, how many pulses, how fast those pulses sell, not how much and how much total electricity it puts out going from.
I’ve also been seeing that there’s in the. Past decade or two. There’s been a lot of private funding in diffusion. There’s been a huge influx of cash, you know, from Jeff Bezos, you know, bill Gates all basically the billionaires are helping to fund a lot of this research where government agencies have not been putting a ton of money into fusion research over the past decades.
Why do you think there’s this sudden interest. Over the past 10, 20 years. I say sudden , I’m talking decades. Over the past 10 to 20 years. Why is there more money funneling into private right now? What do you think is, what do you think is the reasoning for that?
A tremendous increase in private funding infusion.
Uh, Helion announced last year that we had raised 500 million infusion. And at the time it was, yeah, 500 million infusion and then, and then several billion and follow on commercialization. Money is available also as part of that fundraise. Um, and in fact, last year there was over 2 billion in the United States of private funding put into fusion.
Um, that’s, yeah. And, and, and that’s a tremendous amount more, and it’s more than all of the US government programs combined. Fusion only in. And so it’s a great question of why are we, why now? Um, and, and I think it’s, it’s a confluence for he specifically, it’s a confluence of a couple of things. One, we’re seeing more and more need, and we’re seeing more and more need to, to really address climate change.
In a way, um, that is base load power, large scale and deployable throughout the world. And fusion is one of the few things. Maybe the only thing that can act that can do that, and in parallel to that is we’re seeing all of the physics work that we’ve been doing for all of those years. We’re getting closer and closer to answering all those key physics questions so we can start building real machines.
The engineering behind them, that, that make fusion practical. So advancements in fiber optics, switching, cryogenic magnets for other people, uh, advanced computing, all of those things are all coming together now with all of the physics work we’ve been doing for decades and decades together. Can’t, can’t have one without the other.
But those are all coming together here so that you’re seeing faster timelines to where now you’re on the timelines of private capital and where they can get, start thinking about returns on their investment. And, and I think all of those are coming together. And for Helion particularly, we’ve built now six prototypes that have done fusion increasing in scale each time.
And we’re at that point where, okay, great, we’ve shown we can do it at scale. We’ve shown we can do some of the key engineering for limited pulses. Now let’s go and start building big steady systems. Do
you think, uh, government support is still important as a part of this? Because like, even though you, like you just mentioned, which I find disturbing that the private investment is like dwarfs all of the investment of the, the US government, uh, combined.
What do you think, do you think, you think it’s still important to have that support from government agencies? And I think I saw a report that, uh, there was a letter that some senators sent out recently showing support for increasing funding for. Fusion
research. Yes. So there, there, while private capital is really great at accelerating timelines, yeah.
Um, pushing engineering, getting systems built, getting them deployed. There is still a major role for, for the government. And I can talk to the US government, which is who of the majority of our interaction, we wanna make sure we’re building and deploying these things safely. So that means the regulatory picture.
Uh, and so that was, there was a letter, uh, an excellent letter. Senator Kirk and others on how, on, on, on enabling the regulating agencies to start looking at fusion in a practical way. Um, and, and focusing on, on doing it in a way that gets it commercially deployed fast. Um, there’s also things we don’t get to spend a lot of time on, so things like scientific diagnostics, some of the advanced computing things that we don’t, because we’re building as fast as we can iterating on prototypes there are.
Diagnostics we would like to have that we can’t do. And so there’s, um, the, uh, RPE programs and the US government, there’s some excellent RPE research programs and, and diagnostic development programs that are actually outbuilding systems to support the fu the private fusion industry. Gotcha. So, so what we are seeing is we’re seeing the government role transition from being the lead of building large scale systems and, and driving everything around fusion and private companies building support hardware.
Flipping that around, where now the government’s being the supporter at supporting the industry around fusion and the companies around fusion to move forward as fast as they can, but make sure they’re still doing it safely. Make sure they’re understanding the science and the engineering of what they’re building.
So being a supporter and enabler of the private industry is essentially what they’re taking the role as right now. That’s
what we are seeing. There was a, um, in March the executive branch got involved for the first time in a major way. There was a White House event that we were able to participate, a bold decatal vision for Fusion in to get fusion out in the next decade and get it commercially deployed in the United States.
That’s, and so, so seeing support from the executive branch of the, of the US government at that. Uh, has been pretty tremendous. And, and not to just say, to limit to the, to the US through, through the European governments, the UK government, um, we are seeing a lot of, a lot of, of exciting work and interest and support of private fusion happening right now.
I like asking this question, what is the biggest challenge ahead of you and Helion right now? Like, what are the biggest challenges?
Yeah, so. As we’re building these systems and focus on the engineering of building these complex, uh, electrical systems and moving from this once every 600 seconds to now moving it to once every, every few seconds.
Less than once a second. The engineering challenges of that are pretty tremendous, and so we’re having to, we’re engaging a lot of really interesting engineering and coupling it with the fusion work that we’ve done in the past. And so keeping that moving, um, and growing the company at the same time to support those efforts.
We’re now, we’ve passed over a hundred people in the last month and, um, and we’re hiring as fast as we can and sourcing from all over the United States or all over the world to be able to build these. So it’s that, it’s the, the engineering challenge and supply chain challenge. And the hiring challenge of, of building these complex businesses that, and
And the thing about Helion that’s really drew my attention is how aggressive of a timeline you guys are trying to make this happen. And clearly you’re highly motivated to help with the climate change issue, but what’s, how do you respond to skeptics that are like never gonna happen? It’s no way can happen that fast.
It’s always 30 years away, that common joke we typically hear, like how, how would you respond to skeptics?
I was a skeptic two. Um, I started my career, my academic career looking at, hey, we know Fusion, um, in theory can do this, can solve, can solve these big problems. Let’s go learn about it. And what I saw in Fusion was that the approaches that others were taking were gonna be too slow.
They’re big giant systems that had like multinational investments and, and just were. The scale, the efficiency, the engineering, the physics, unknowns were just too big and too slow. So I changed my career, went off and did um, a plasma physics, a lot of the same physics and engineering, but around space propulsion, for instance, and came back to fusion.
As we started to demonstrate that you could build the key technologies, the direct energy recovery speeds you up by generations of machines cuz you’re just directly harnessing the electricity from the beginning rather than having. Learn how to build the big steam turbine systems or other things that other people are doing.
So that’s a big one. Um, building multiple systems in parallel accelerates your timeline in a very, in a very unusual way historically for fusion. Um, and then, and then, and then fundamentally the physics, if you can build these systems, higher energy density, we haven’t talked about beta too much, but at high beta, so they get smaller, they get more compact.
That means they’re easier to build. You can build multiple of. And you can build manufacturing systems. And we’re doing a lot of that work now in, in this space that you can see behind me of building manufacturing systems to support rapid development, uh, building and deployment of these. So we’re just, we’re trying to hit every single vertical of how do you speed these up?
Um, and then, and then at that point I can say that’s the best we’re gonna do and we’re gonna push really hard to get it done
and, and kinda related. I’ve talked to other companies, not Fusion, but trying to get new energy generation systems online as fast as possible, and some of them are taking the approach of not trying to go straight into utility scale, but going to private businesses, like partnering with companies that build data centers because they want reliable power for themselves.
Are you looking at that approach or are you, are you aiming more at going straight for utility once you’re ready for it?
Yeah, it’s, it’s, I think that’s a great business question that. Looked at very early on at, at Helion, where is the first place you wanna deploy fusion? And what we found was that private industry has a tremendous need for power systems.
Data center is a very good example, or even a small data center, maybe a hundred megawatts of power and a large scale when it’s gigawatts of power. And so they need, they have, they’re motivated for clean technology and they need lots of power. And we cite data centers now where the power. Not where the people or the information is.
And so that doesn’t really jive with me as an engineer. We should be focused on putting data centers where they need to be and have the power technology to support them. So we believe that fusion for a whole bunch of political and business reasons and engineering reasons, even which we can, I’d love to dig into, are, would be a good fit for private industry well before and, and commercial power uses well before they get, they need into the
Well, so you said dig into that engineering perspective. Why is that, why, why would you say that?
So in, in our specific case, for instance, we take, um, electricity, we compress a fusion plasma, we extract that electricity back out directly. Um, and we do it in a way where it’s already now at kilovolts of power, uh, kilovolts of voltage and, and it’s dc.
And so there’s some really interesting opportunities in in if you’re doing fusion a little differently and you’re generating energy not through a rotating turbine, but through direct energy of does this DC power allow you to do interesting things where you have data centers that are mostly DC already, can you get rid of AC conversion systems and just.
State DC um, charging cars, DC power at high voltage. There’s all kinds of really interesting applications of can you then speed up and remove engineering systems, remove development cycles, and get right to commercial power for some applications as fast as possible. Still focused for us on electricity and not on any of the, the heat related things.
So it’s basically about stripping away some of those engineering constraints to help speed up the, the design and engineering of it. Cuz you’re, you’re simplifying the entire. Essentially, and,
and if we do it right, maybe we can simplify other systems too, simplify the data centers also and bring all that together.
Um, so there’s some, there’s some interesting opportunities to innovate there. I would say the main focus, however, is if our goal is to move fast, then the engaging with large scale. Industrial customers will be faster than, than big utilities. That, not to say that we’re not talking with utilities. We’ve been working with the local utilities here in, we, we moved our headquarters up to Everett, Washington this year and we’ve been working with the local utilities here to pave the way of what is it gonna take to get into their power grid as soon as possible, and starting those processes, conversations, and, and studies.
this is kind of a random question. What’s your overall impression and feeling of the fusion industry and sector in general? Like where are you optimistic about, obviously gonna be optimistic about Helion, but like I’m curious about like the entire industry, not, not asking you to call out specific companies or technologies, but like just in general, how do you feel about where things are right now with fusion?
Yeah, as a human, I can see most of the universe is powered by fusion. Maybe all of the universe, every sun, every every star system, uh, is powered by fusion energy, the physics of fusion. And you kind of know that as humans, we should be able to harness this. This is where what we should be doing, and it’s, it’s clean and it’s safe, and it doesn’t generate carbon dioxide, so let’s do it.
And, and. I as a human, I’m very excited by what I’m seeing of this tremendous growth in, in investment, in technological growth, in, in different ideas to get to Fusion. And so my optimism that not only are we gonna have fusion in our future, but we’re gonna have fusion very soon in our future. I obviously, I believe it’s gonna be Helion, but, but as a human, I’m very excited by what I’m seeing across the industry.
Is there, is there anything we haven’t touched on with Helion specifically that you’d wanna touch on?
I think just to, just to reiterate, That and, and this, this builds on your previous. Question in that as we’re seeing this growth of the, the fusion industry and, and these new technologies that, that, I’m excited to be able to watch Helion grow as it has both in, in people, but also in technology, and be able to demonstrate these key fusion milestones of a hundred million degrees, $500 million raised past a hundred percent head count, being able to.
To see the, the growth of that. And I just personally am very excited about, about seeing that and, and watching that growth happen. And then as we’re building a full industry and all the manufacturing, we haven’t touched on any of the manufacturing parts, if you, if we wanted to Yeah. All the new industry we have to build to support fusion.
talk, let’s touch on that. Like, like what, what do we have to build out to be able to support what we’re talking about building here? Like Yeah. , I’m imagining there’s an entire industry that has to form around this to support.
Yeah, so infusion the, the, the industry, the manufacturing to support it doesn’t really exist yet.
And so it’s one of the, the exciting, other exciting things we get to do. And if our goal is to move fast, which it is, then we need to be developing the, the electronic technologies, the high power switches, so our semiconductor switches, our custom design, and we’re having, and we’re learning how to mass produce semiconductor switches.
Lots of people know how to do that, but these are a. Of an evolution now that, now that we’re big enough and, and we need to buy enough of them, that we can, um, design our own systems and our own semiconductors and mass manufacture them. Energy storage. We build, we use capacitors instead of batteries and those capacitor manufacturing, we’re making more capacitors than anybody else, and so we need to be building the line.
The, the manufacturing lines in the United States so that Helion can be producing those capacities. So we’re not waiting on anyone else or global supply chains or any of those other things. And so, um, a lot of what we’re doing in Everett in the, the, our, our facility, we call this one an tars. Um, behind, behind me is building out those manufacturing lines of semiconductors.
Uh, we just opened up a large scale machine shop with our, our, our big, uh, 15 foot long CNC is to start. Machining all the, the big parts that we need for the, the big high power magnets.
Do you see this as a potential like limiting factor for the rollout of fusion? You could, you could prove that you could do fusion next year, but if we, it could be a decade more before we can actually start rolling it out in a meaningful way because there’s no industry around it to support it.
We, we are, us and our investors are definitely looking at what it’s gonna take to, um, get fusion out in the world and not a single system, but to, to answer. Thousands of gigawatts of fossil fuel power we have out in the world. That means we need to be producing gigawatt level production per day of electrical generating capacity.
That’s a huge undertaking, and we’re putting a lot of those systems in place, at least thought processes in the beginning of the manufacturing lines to be able to do that. Interestingly, a lot of the timeline challenges that I look back earlier in my career were weirdly supply chain challenges, not physics challenges.
Uh, we knew how to build a fusion system, but it took three years to get all the parts in the door and, and then a lot of, and then years to, to assemble all those parts. And so by, by, um, attacking that manufacturing today, speeding that up, starting to build system while we’re buying from one manufacturer, an existing manufacturer, we’re building manufacturing lines ourselves in.
To be able to, to answer the need today and then get ready for the need in the future. Um, I think, honestly, I think it also comes to a lot of the engineering is that you should be fusions companies and, and he on focuses on this and designing systems that can be mass manufactured commercially. And so that should be in our forefront when we make engineering decisions.
Sometimes we say, well, that would be really nice to have, but I can’t mass manufacture. XYZ component. And so I need to redesign this into a smaller system or segments or some other thing so that I can put this on a truck, for instance, and make sure everything can, can be deployed as fast as possible. So, so it comes into even the engineering.
Of building Polaris. We think about making sure we’re building in a way that you can always put it on a truck. You can always deliver it to a site, install it at the site as fast as possible. So we talk about gigafactories to, to, to use that word, a fusion, a building, fusion generators.
You’re, you’re looking at the entire ecosystem around the, the prototype itself.
Not just the prototype. You’re looking at making sure that you can roll it out efficiently in. Which is something that I haven’t seen a lot of fusion companies doing. A lot of, there’s people I’ve spoken to in the past that have been very, it’s very still very academic of, they’re still trying to prove out the physics and they’re still moving forward.
But Helion seems to be taking the approach of kind of like Tesla for fusion. You’re, you’re looking at the entire picture. You’re building the machine that will build the machines.
And when we started Helion, we thought about it as, we are just gonna, we’re gonna focus on thinking about, we wanna get electricity out at a worldwide scale, so we need to be thinking about those manufacturing systems and, and designing and engineering that way.
In practice, actually, we’ve found that even these first generation demonstration systems, these prototypes by working on how to manufacture faster. Right now, it actually speeds us up today that I can build parts in parallel. I can have redundancy. I can do all that stuff today. So, Things happen in a global supply chain that slow everything down like we’ve seen in the last two years, we’re already positioned to keep moving at maximum speed.
Um, and so it’s a little bit of more upfront capital investment and intellectual investment of thinking about those systems holistically in the whole ecosystem has paid off even today in these first, first of a kind
systems. This all plays back into what you were talking about, how, how you’re iterating through different prototypes at the same.
The speed at which you’re moving is part of your answer. Two skeptics. It’s cuz you’re looking at the whole picture and you’re engineering for the whole picture, which is why you’re gonna be moving faster than a lot of people expect you
to be able to move. And, and then we try to, to talk about it. Show pictures of it.
You can, yeah. And, and show pictures of the systems we built than the crane as it goes in and as we start putting coils together and assembling them. So you can see, and you can come along with he on the. Of what we’re building and, and then also come join us. And, uh, just as a plug of, we are hiring lots of, of talented engineers and scientists to come join us on, on this adventure.
covered all the questions I had. If there’s anything else you wanna touch on, we can, we can talk about anything you want. Is there anything else?
No, I think, I think we got it all and our goal is to have Polaris up and running in 2024 showing that we can make electricity from Fusion for the first time.
cannot wait. I’m very excited. , me too.
I hope you all enjoyed that discussion with Mr. Kirtley, and thank you to Matt for including that in this episode. I think that this program that we have here is a great place for some of that longer information, so let us know you, the, the viewers on YouTube, or the listeners on the podcast.
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