Silicon Valley supervisor Sam Altman is investing $ 375 million in his largest ever funding within the fusion start-up Helion Vitality

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Sam Altman, co-founder and CEO of OpenAI Inc., speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco, California on Thursday, October 3, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Nuclear fusion is the short-lived holy grail of climate technology. It would provide nearly unlimited amounts of clean energy without the need to dispose of the long-lived radioactive waste by-product.

It’s also the biggest bet Silicon Valley luminary Sam Altman has ever made.

“This is the biggest investment I’ve ever made,” Altman told CNBC of his $ 375 million investment in Helion Energy on Friday. It is part of a larger $ 500 million round that the startup will complete construction of a fusion facility near its headquarters in Everett, Washington.

Altman was President of the Silicon Valley start-up shop Y Combinator from 2014 to 2019 and is now CEO of Open AI, an organization that researches artificial intelligence and which he founded with Elon Musk and others. (Musk has since stepped down, citing conflicts of interest with Tesla’s AI endeavors.) Altman was also a big proponent of universal basic income, the idea that government should give every citizen a living basic wage to offset technological disruptions that make some jobs irrelevant.

Years ago Altman had made a list of the technologies he wanted to be a part of, and artificial intelligence and energy were high on that list.

Altman visited four merger companies and made his first $ 9.5 million investment in Helion in 2015.

“I immediately thought after meeting the founders of Helion that they were the best and their technical approach was by far the best,” he said.

Helion’s approach to fusion

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Helion’s fusion machine

Courtesy of Helion

Helion uses “pulsed magnetic fusion,” explained Kirtley. That means the company uses aluminum magnets to compress its fuel and then expand it to generate electricity directly.

Extremely high temperatures are required to create and maintain the delicate physical state called plasma, in which electrons are separated from nuclei and in which fusion can take place.

In June, Helion announced that its sixth prototype fusion generator, Trenta, had exceeded 100 million degrees Celsius.

Kirtley likens Helion’s fusion machine to a diesel engine, while older technology is more like a campfire. With a campfire, you stoke the fire to generate warmth. In a diesel engine, you inject the fuel into a container, then compress and heat the fuel until it starts to burn. “And then you use the extension to do useful work right away,” Kirtley said.

“By using this new, fresh approach and some of the old physics, we can move forward and do it quickly,” said Kirtley. “In the end, the systems are much smaller, much faster to iterate, and that brings us as quickly as possible to commercially usable electricity that solves the climate change problem.”

Helion Energy uses aneutronic fusion, which means that “there aren’t many high-energy neutrons in their fusion reaction,” said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation for the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force.

There are still unknowns to the aneutronic merger, Rampal said.

“An aneutronic approach, such as that taken by Helion Energy, could have potential advantages that other approaches do not, but also have other disadvantages and challenges in the commercial generation of fusion energy,” said Rampal.

Overall, however, Rampal believes the wave of investment and innovation of the past two decades is good news for the industry.

“With so much to prove for true commercial merger approaches, looking at the problem from different angles and trying to figure out what the best pros and cons of each technology are, the merger industry should be right now,” Rampal told CNBC.

Altman’s three-part utopian vision

For Altman, Fusion is part of his overall vision of increasing wealth through technological innovation – a vision that differs from many investors and thinkers in the climate field.

“Number one, I think it’s our best chance to get out of the climate crisis,” Altman said.

More generally, “Lowering energy bills is one of the best ways to improve people’s quality of life,” Altman said. “The correlation there is just unbelievably great.”

Altman’s utopian vision has three parts.

Artificial intelligence, Altman said, will lower the cost of goods and services with exponential increases in productivity. In the transition period, when many jobs will be lost, a universal basic income will be required to cover people’s living costs. And practically unlimited, inexpensive, green energy is the third part of Altman’s vision for the world.

The co-founders of Helion Energy, Chris Pihl (L) and David Kirtley (R).

Photo courtesy of Helion Energy

“For the same reason that I’m so interested in AI, I think that fusion as the path to abundant energy is the other part of the equation to abundance,” Altman told CNBC.

“I think basically the two limiting commodities you see all over the world today are intelligence, which we are working on with AI, and energy, which I think Helion has the most exciting in the world right now.”

But Altman knows that Fusion has been elusive for decades. “The joke about the merger is that it’s been 30 years gone for 50 years,” he said.

Kirtley was similarly dismayed at the seemingly impossible timeframe for the merger to commercialize. “I got into Fusion, spent a couple of years learning all about Fusion and all the typical approaches, and actually turned away from Fusion. I said these schedules weren’t helping us, ”Kirtley told CNBC.

He worked with NASA, the Air Force, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on space propulsion technology to help people travel to Mars and beyond.

But the idea of ​​taking advantage of the approach to fusion with new technologies, Kirtley withdrew.

Kirtley joined his co-founders John Slough, George Votroubek and Chris Pihl to form Helion in 2013. It hasn’t been applied to the fusion industry as a whole, “Kirtley said.

The Helion Energy team.

Photo courtesy of Helion

The money from the round announced on Friday will be used to help build Polaris, Helion’s 7th fusion device.

Other Helion investors include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook. Moskovitz also took part in the funding round on Friday.

The mission is personal to Kirtley as fighting climate change is for so many. In 2008 he moved to Washington from Southern California.

“I’m watching the summers in Washington now, where we have fires now, and we didn’t when I first moved here,” he said. The urgency is palpable as they watch the glaciers melt on Mount Rainier.

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