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David Kirtley
David Kirtley

Dr. David Kirtley comes across as a smart, practical guy with a head for business. That creates some cognitive dissonance when he explains that his Redmond startup is developing fusion energy.

You’ve heard about fusion energy, the amazing power source of the future. Nuclear scientists promise fusion will have all the best qualities of conventional nuclear and natural-gas energy but none of the downsides.

Fusion is carbon-free like today’s atomic power, but without the need to protect a thousand future generations from radioactive waste. Other than being mind-blowing, fusion would be relatively safe — no China Syndrome, no contamination, no weapons-grade materials to proliferate.

Thus far, fusion energy always has been an unfinished science that’s 50 years and $50 billion from commercialization. (Seven nations are collaborating to build an experimental fusion reactor in France as an $11 billion proof of concept that still won’t produce electricity when it’s operational in 2027.)

Dr. Kirtley’s company Helion Energy has taken the proven parts of fusion science and combined them into a design that can be commercially deployable within six years. That would be a decade ahead of Helion’s Bellevue neighbor, TerraPower LLC, a startup funded in part by Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates to build a traveling wave reactor that runs on uranium.

Helion Energy last week won the top prize in the Energy Generation category at the Cleantech Open Global Forum in Silicon Valley. The prize comes with a $5,000 check and a long menu of in-kind services. The audience also gave Helion a People’s Choice Award. The annual competition culminates a nine-month business accelerator for cleantech startups.

helion2The team at Helion comes out of the University of Washington and Mathematical Sciences Northwest. At its headquarters in Redmond, Helion has a working prototype that they say proves their design works. Deuterium gas goes in two ends of the device and produces a pair of plasmas per second. Plasma is responsible for the glow of lightning, neon lights and the Sun. As the two plasmas collide in the center, a magnetic pulse generates electricity.

At the Global Forum, Dr. Kirtley told me his design is compact, modular and competitive in today’s market. In the footprint of a semi trailer, each module will produce 50 megawatts of electricity (it would take ten of them to equal the output of a conventional power plant). The deuterium fuel is derived from seawater. The byproduct is a harmless stream of helium.

Helion Energy is raising $35 million to build a fusion reactor core that will demonstrate electricity production from fusion energy. Its technology previously received $4 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Helion isn’t looking for funding to do more science,” says Kirtley. “We already proved our technology. We’re now ready to start commercializing fusion energy.”

Denis is a GeekWire contributor on energy topics, a cleantech marketing advisor and blogger.

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