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Silicon Valley bets on nuclear fusion coming soon

Illustration of a road leading to a glowing atom on the horizon

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Some of Silicon Valley's biggest names are investing in startups with aggressive claims that commercial nuclear fusion is only several years away.

Why it matters: A successful nuclear fusion bet could make Silicon Valley's tech investors key players in a clean energy game changer of planetary importance.

Driving the news: Startup Helion Energy announced last month that it's building a 500 MW fusion power plant to provide electricity for Nucor, America's largest steel producer by 2030.

  • The company is also planning to build a fusion reactor to sell electricity to Microsoft by 2028 in what would be the world's first fusion power purchase agreement.
  • Helion is working on its seventh fusion prototype, and it expects it to provide the key step of producing electricity sometime next year. Scott Krisiloff, the company's chief business officer, describes the importance of that step as the equivalent to the Wright brothers' first powered flight.

Catch up quick: Helion raised a $500 million Series E round two years ago led by tech entrepreneur and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. It included Peter Thiel's Mithra Capital and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. Altman has invested $375 million into Helion, his largest personal investment.

  • Helion is one of 43 companies that are developing nuclear fusion technologies.
  • Another example is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which has raised $2 billion from Bill Gates, Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital, Google, John Doerr, and Marc Benioff's Time Ventures, among others.
  • Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, whose firm also backed year-old fusion startup Realta Fusion, is so bullish on the technology he says fusion and geothermal could replace all natural gas and coal plants by the 2040s.

Yes, but: There's considerable skepticism about many fusion startups' commercial claims.

  • Helion, in particular, is using an entirely new approach to fusion that one engineer not involved with the company described to Axios as "sounds like magic."

Big picture: The nuclear fusion industry is accelerating, with major milestones, new and progressing companies and new pockets of government support.

  • Over the past year, 13 new fusion companies have been founded or emerged from stealth, according to the Fusion Industry Association.
  • What was once science fiction and pure R&D is now an actual industry with customers willing to purchase the product.
  • If Silicon Valley investors have a hand in a breakthrough fusion company, it would provide the rare example of VC backing a brand-new type of clean power generation.
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