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Cleanest Energy Of All Could Soon Come From Small Redmond Lab

Bellamy Pailthorp
David Kirtley holds up a small glass ampule of deuterium oxide. “One gram of deuterium has enough energy in it – 18 megawatts, which is enough to power your home for a year," he says.";s:

When you start talking with David Kirtley, don’t be surprised if you suddenly feel like you’re in a comic strip.  

Kirtley is the CEO of Redmond-based Helion Energy, and his business plan sounds like fantasy. He says the potential for solving all of our energy problems is contained in what looks like just a drop of water.

One Gram =10 Tons Of Coal Or Home Power For A Year

“One gram of deuterium has enough energy in it – 18 megawatts, which is enough to power your home for a year. And it’s about 10 tons of coal worth of energy that you can then hold in your hand,” Kirtley says as he holds up a translucent vial the size of an eyedropper.

Kirtley carries around that small glass ampule so he can tell the story anywhere he goes.

He says the vial of heavy water (deuterium oxide) is like regular water, but it contains a larger-than-normal amount of deuterium. So instead of H2O, it's 2H20, also known as D20. 

"It’s something we find in regular water. It’s in your coffee when you drink it. It’s safe and renewable, and clean,” he says. 

He says if researchers can make it work, it would provide base-load electricity to complement less reliable sources of clean energy like wind and solar power. And it doesn’t generate any waste to speak of — not even enough helium to take to market, Kirtley says. Really, it’s just a bit of hot air.

Creating Energy In A Device ‘Shorter Than A Person’

Kirtley’s small startup is trying to extract energy from an isotope of hydrogen by compressing it in test reactors in order to smash atoms together and cause nuclear fusion. It’s pretty amazing to think about.

“How wonderful the promise is, that you can get so much energy from such a small amount of just regular water,”Kirtley says. “Tells you also about how hard the problem is.” 

It’s hard because you’ve got to squish two atoms together using so much force that they overcome their natural aversion to each other and form one atom. When the nuclei fuse, they spark and cast off charged particles that you can harness as energy.

Making this happen requires inconceivably hot temperatures and pressures. It’s atomic alchemy.

In France, an international consortium of scientists called ITER is building a fusion reactor that’s several stories tall to accomplish this, at a cost of billions of dollar.

And in Redmond, Kirtley explains, they’re already doing it at a fraction of the cost, with a small reactor that would fit into an average garage.

“A good analogy — and you can see this in some of the photos and things — is that we have a device that is shorter than a person, where in ITER, you’d be able to actually walk in,” Kirtley says. “We say [ours is] about one-millionth the volume in the reaction chamber of the actual fuel.”

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Small is the startup’s strategy for solving one of the world’s most intractable problems. Helion’s reactor is about the size of a semi-truck trailer and it could be used in places where space is at a premium and the logistics of supply chain is challenging. Think island nations or server farms, or manufacturing plants in hard-to-reach places — places that currently have to ship in a lot of expensive and dirty diesel fuel for generators, Kirtley says. His team is designing what it says is a more manageable approach than their big, international competitors’.

“That’s what we have found, is that in fact, making it physically smaller and lower cost means that you can explore more options more quickly,“ he says.

A Pop And A Pink Flash Signal New Energy, But No Net Gain — Yet

In Redmond, researchers have demonstrated fusion mostly using high-powered magnets. The technical term for what they’ve built is a magneto inertial fusion reactor. At Helion, they have easier nicknames for their prototypes.

Kirtley stands near a bank of computers and an open doorway. Coils, magnets and wires fill a metal rack with some pipes overhead. This is Helion’s fourth prototype.

“Yes, so, this is currently Grande. Tall was the previous generation. The next one will be Venti. And then we’ll go on hopefully to a Trenta,” he says.

They started small, but they’re scaling up now. Because even though they fire up Grande to make fusion happen about 100 times a day, it’s not yet commercially viable; they have to put more energy in than its reaction puts out. Their hope is that as they gradually create larger prototypes, they’ll get to break even and beyond. And that’s what they’re testing now.  

The reaction itself takes just a fraction of a second and emits a pink flash of light. The flash comes from the energy that’s released when the two deuterium atoms fuse. You can hardly hear the sound it makes, which is a pop that resembles the crack of lightning or a cap gun.

There may be no net gain just yet, but Kirtley says the researchers are on the right track with the densities and temperatures they’re using to contain the reactions. The magnetic-pulsing technique they’ve developed can be used to make heat to run generators or to extract electricity directly from the electromagnetic fields. Last year, the startup attracted $1.5 million in venture capital.

But as the startup stretches its inventions into bigger and bigger prototypes, there’s no real telling what will happen. Ideally, the machines will get more refined as they go, culminating in a working commercial reactor. Kirtley hopes that will happen in the next three years, so he could bring it to market in as soon as six years.

“That’s the hope. That’s the hope is that you are always adding fidelity, you’re adding complexity that makes it more correct, that makes it more accurate. The danger is that you added fidelity, you made it more complex, but now it’s not right. That’s always the worry,” he says.

And worry they should, say some critics. After all, they’re tinkering with nature. It’s like trying to put a sun in a bottle. The goal is so elusive it’s become a running joke among analysts.

Fusion ‘20 Years Away And Always Will Be’

Peter Grossman is a professor of Economics at Butler University and author of recent book “U.S. Energy and Policy and the Pursuit of Failure.” Its preface is about the billions of dollars wasted on the Magnetic Fusion Engineering Act of 1980.

“Ever since I’ve looked at energy issues, people have been saying about fusion: It’s 20 years away and always will be,” Grossman says.  

People have been working on fusion and wishing it would solve our energy crises for at least 60 years. Grossman says he wouldn’t bet money on it unless he was a very rich philanthropist.

“If I had Bill Gates type wealth … then I might invest,” he says.

He says he hopes venture capital does, in fact, succeed at this, because it would be good for all of humanity. And he says the money spent by governments on research and development for this smaller approach to test reactors is worth supporting. Helion had grants from the U.S. Department of Energy before getting its first round of private investments.

‘We Also Hope Other People Succeed’

Kirtley says times have changed since the ‘80s and technological change is speeding up. Fusion technology is gaining new momentum. For example, some of the magnets they use at Helion are new technologies developed for wind power turbines. And Helion has been working on fusion for eight years already; they’re not coming out of nowhere.

“This is the culmination of many, many years — decades — of work,” Kirtley says. “And so why we’re confident is that we’ve been able to do it. We’ve been able to, over the last eight years, build hardware, build prototypes and show that it works the way we had hoped it would work,” he says.

And experience includes not just successes; Kirtley says setbacks are part of the process.

“We certainly had…I say four prototypes, because those are the ones that we liked the best. There were other prototypes in there that maybe didn’t work so well, while we were still learning how to do this.”

That’s why venture capital is flowing in, not just to Helion, but to lots of small fusion companies. There’s competition as close as Burnaby, B.C. and California.

And while Kirtley is working hard to get the resources his team needs to invent the best fusion widget, he says there won’t be just one winner in this race to solve the global energy crisis.

“It’s competition in a way that we also hope other people succeed,” Kirtley says. “There’s plenty of room for everyone.”

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as part of our new show, “Sound Effect,” which airs on Saturdays at 10 a.m.  

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