Microsoft Bets on Nuclear Fusion to Power Future Computing

Published 18 May 2023

2 min read

Microsoft signed a deal last week to use nuclear fusion as a power source by 2028. As computer processes like artificial intelligence (AI) consume increasing amounts of energy, the company is betting on the untapped potential of nuclear fusion – a not-yet market-ready technology – as the key to its sustainability strategy.

Helion, the US start-up that partnered with Microsoft, has been developing nuclear fusion tech since 2013, and began construction on a reactor in 2021. Unlike nuclear fission, the nuclear energy in use today, nuclear fusion generates power in a process that mimics the sun, melding hydrogen and helium together without splitting atoms.

The atom-splitting process occurring during nuclear fission leaves behind toxic waste, which remains radioactive for millions of years. Nuclear fusion, in comparison, doesn’t generate any radioactive waste and produces up to four million times more energy than burning coal or oil. It’s been dubbed the ‘holy grail’ of clean power by media outlets and tech billionaires, but it faces a major issue: it has never been commercialised at scale.

Scientists in a Californian lab recently made a breakthrough by generating more energy in a nuclear fusion test than it took to start the reaction. Helion has claimed it’s capable of supplying 50 megawatts of nuclear-fusion-generated power to Microsoft in 2028. But experts remain sceptical that the technology – which has been under development since the 1950s – is a few years away from commercial viability.

Interestingly, one of the investors behind Helion is Sam Altman, chief executive of US start-up OpenAI (which created ChatGPT). If Helion delivers on its promises, it could dramatically decrease the emissions caused by grand-scale AI systems, and place Microsoft at the head of the AI innovation race.

For more, see EmTech Digital 2023 and Answering the Energy Crisis.

Helion, the US start-up that partnered with Microsoft, has been developing nuclear fusion tech since 2013, and began construction on a reactor in 2021. Unlike nuclear fission, the nuclear energy in use today, nuclear fusion generates power in a process that mimics the sun, melding hydrogen and helium together without splitting atoms.

The atom-splitting process occurring during nuclear fission leaves behind toxic waste, which remains radioactive for millions of years. Nuclear fusion, in comparison, doesn’t generate any radioactive waste and produces up to four million times more energy than burning coal or oil. It’s been dubbed the ‘holy grail’ of clean power by media outlets and tech billionaires, but it faces a major issue: it has never been commercialised at scale.

Scientists in a Californian lab recently made a breakthrough by generating more energy in a nuclear fusion test than it took to start the reaction. Helion has claimed it’s capable of supplying 50 megawatts of nuclear-fusion-generated power to Microsoft in 2028. But experts remain sceptical that the technology – which has been under development since the 1950s – is a few years away from commercial viability.

Interestingly, one of the investors behind Helion is Sam Altman, chief executive of US start-up OpenAI (which created ChatGPT). If Helion delivers on its promises, it could dramatically decrease the emissions caused by grand-scale AI systems, and place Microsoft at the head of the AI innovation race.

For more, see EmTech Digital 2023 and Answering the Energy Crisis.