Helion Energy Developing Two New Fusion Reactor Prototypes

Helion Energy has received over $570 million in funding and commitments for another $1.7 billion to develop commercial nuclear fusion.

Helion has performed thousands of tests with their sixth prototype called Trenta. In 2021, Trenta reached 100 million degrees C, the temperature they could run a commercial reactor. Magnetic compression fields exceeded 10 T, ion temperatures surpassed 8 keV, and electron temperatures exceeded 1 keV. They reported ion densities up to 3 × 10^22 ions/m3 and confinement times of up to 0.5 ms.

7th prototype Polaris
Helion’s seventh-generation prototype, Project Polaris was in development in 2021, with completion expected in 2024. The device was expected to increase the pulse rate from one pulse every 10 minutes to one pulse per second for short periods. This prototype is the first of its kind to be able to heat fusion plasma up to temperatures greater than 100 million degrees C. Polaris is 25% larger than Trenta to ensure that ions do not damage the vessel walls.

Helion’s plan with Polaris is to try demonstrate net electricity from fusion. They plan to demonstrate helium-3 production through deuterium-deuterium fusion.

The plan with Polaris is to pulse at a higher repetition rate during continuous operations.

8th prototype Antares
As of January 2022, an eighth prototype, Antares, is in the design stage.

Helium-3 is an ultra-rare isotope of helium that is difficult to find on Earth used in quantum computing and critical medical imaging. Helion produces helium-3 by fusing deuterium in its plasma accelerator utilizing a patented high-efficiency closed-fuel cycle. Scientists have even discussed going to the Moon to mine helium-3 where it can be found in much higher abundance. Helion’s new process means we can produce helium-3 on Earth.

Helion’s cost of electricity production is projected to be $0.01 per kWh without assuming any economies of scale from mass production, carbon credits, or government incentives.

Nextbigfuture has interviewed Helion executives a few years ago and has reported on Helion plans before. Helion and all other nuclear fusion companies have missed target dates in the past. The only fusion companies that have not missed target dates are those that are too new.

There are several anti-nuclear fusion critics. Interestingly, two of the more prominent ones worked on nuclear fusion projects. They were paid with a career trying to develop nuclear fusion on the Tokomak projects. They have left and only after leaving do they choose to criticize nuclear fusion. They hate the newer companies the most. They like the Tokomak projects more. They use old Nextbigfuture articles that reported on what the nuclear fusion companies said they were doing and the target dates. Somehow, the nuclear critics seem to think that Nextbigfuture should have validated all science and technology claims and questioned every assertion made. Yet, they with physics degrees and engineering degrees did not question joining failed Tokomak projects before or while they were working their for years.

All current nuclear fusion projects are less capable than the first EBR-1 fission reactor from 1951. However, technological and scientific breakthroughs can happen. Breakthroughs often do not happen. Nuclear fusion projects might succeed or might not. Many normal large projects fail. Multi-billion dollar skyscrapers and building projects that fail not because of difficult science. Big companies and big projects can fail and they can be late and miss deadlines. The SLS rocket is an example of a project going massively over budget and behind schedule.

Advanced nuclear fission is also being developed which appear likely to start first reactor completions in 2025-2030.

19 thoughts on “Helion Energy Developing Two New Fusion Reactor Prototypes”

  1. Nice article, Brian. Thanks for your honest thoughts.

    Successful Fusion requires mastering many disciplines. New engineering, new machines, new materials – all must be brought together based on unproven theories. I expect many failures and a lot of money used to advance toward an outcome that is not guaranteed.

    Just like the space program of the 60s led to the formation of SpaceX 50 years later, I believe the work being done now will eventually lead to a successful company cracking practical fusion generators. AI and Quantum Computing will build on the foundations of Helion and other research.

    • I think they can eventually get it working, but it’s a freaking huge amount of work when fission power is already working, and fuel enough to last until the Sun moves off the main sequence. I mean, nature wants fission to work, ore bodies have actually gone critical in nature and ran as nuclear reactors. Whereas you don’t get fusion in nature until you pile up stellar quantities of fuel.

      Imagine how advanced fission power would be, with the same resources thrown at improving it.

      I love advanced technology, but sometimes I just want to tear my hair out over the pointlessness of pursuing fusion when we already have fission.

  2. Correction:
    The name of the 8th prototype is NOT Antares. That was a misquote. Antares is the name of their new headquarter building where they are assembling Polaris and subsequent machines.

    As for them missing their target dates: Your own articles quoted them as “raising funding for those machines”. They did not get that funding until later. So they could naturally not reach their target dates.

  3. My low risk bet is still ITER. Private projects often overestimate their progress too much because they depressed about funding. It is possible that Helion can get Q>1 before ITER but the odd is not high.

    • The majority (not sure about the exact numbers, but over 550 million) is private. IIRC, they got a few million from NASA and ARPA-E, but not nearly enough for even Trenta.

  4. In terms of critics are you referring to the youtube video by Improbable Matter? I think the issue he raised was on the generation of high energy neutrons from Deuterium Tritium fusion whereby Tritium is a byproduct of Deuterium Deuterium fusion. Has Helion denied that this is an issue, or if not say if they have a workaround? I haven’t seen any official response, or any protection in the design of those expensive looking electro magnets and control electronics from damage caused by high energy neutrons.

    • The usual solution is to go with a low burnup. That way the concentration of Tritium in the fuel never gets very high, and not much of it reacts to produce those neutrons.

      • The problem is for every 3He nucleus created from Deuterium-Deuterium 2H-2H fusion, one Tritium (3H) nucleus is created. The machine and process is based on aneutronic 3He 2H fusion, but that has a much lower yield than Tritium Deuterium 3H 2H fusion which produces high energy neutrons. So unless the 3He is added externally (the only source being the moon) then low burn means low power yield, which defeats the purpose of having the fusion reactor.

        • The output gases can be stored, the half life of the tritium is 12.33 years and it decays to 3He which can be feed back into the reactors.
          Maybe the tritium can be efficiently recovered from the output gases, I see for example “Scalable and efficient separation of hydrogen isotopes using graphene-based electrochemical pumping” in the publication Nature.

            • As I recall, the plan is for the fusion reactor to be in one shipping container, and the gas separation to be done in another shipping container, sitting next to it. The gas will be continuously pumped out of the reactor, filtered, and pumped back in. So if they go with graphene, it won’t be in the hot reactor.

              I think there was also a third container needed. Maybe it was for the capacitors and electronics. I don’t remember.

        • They will do two D-D reactions for every D-He3 reaction, at least until they have a large enough Tritium inventory to have additional He3 from T- decay.

      • They don’t have to do that even.
        The Tritium is too hot and non collisional on the timeframe of the pulse. Only very few Tritium atoms will have enough time to slow down and fuse with a Deuterium atom.

    • The Tritium is 1 MeV when it is born. It is too hot and non collisional on the timeframe of the pulse (<1ms). It will leave confinement before significant amounts of it can fuse.

      • That’s fine in the initial pulse, but they’re not going to be running an open cycle, one pass system. The (mostly ‘unburnt’) fuel after the pulse will have to be recycled into a later pulse, will be going through the machine over and over.

        Tritium and H3 will inevitably build up unless removed, and on all but the first pass will be thermalized, and Tritium will be consumed, producing more neutrons.

        So they’ll have to be continuously purifying the fuel, and storing away the Tritium and He3. They’ll be produced in the blanket, too, after all.

        Gonna take a huge Tritium inventory to be producing He3 fast enough. So huge they might even find it useful to tap power off the decay energy, since they’ll have to remove it anyway. 340W/Kg is nothing to sneeze at, even if it’s a fraction of what the fusion reactions would be producing.

        • According to Helion’s patent there are a lot of means to separate fuel and fusion products. Some make sure of the fact that particles all have different mass-to-charge ratios and have a large energy spread. Suitable techniques include but are not limited to cryogenic separation, mass quadrupole separation, inversion-ion cyclotron extraction, and as well as a host of standard chemical processes.
          For Tritium separation and storage there are even off the shelf solutions from a company in Canada.
          It is also worth noting that fuel/product separation does not have to happen in real time or even on site. A 50 MWe Helion power plant will consume only about 20 kg of Deuterium/year (which is over 80% of the fuel) and 6 kg of He3. It will also produce about the same amount of Tritium as a byproduct, unless I miscalculated somewhere. Now, personally, I think they should sell that Tritium until the market is saturated. Even at a very low price, they would make more money from selling the Tritium than from storing it until it decays into He3.

      • The He3 is 0.82MeV and I assume will have a similar issue, this suggests it needs to be cooled down without fusing and reinjected. I am not sure how big a challenge that may be.

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