Sam Altman Invests $ 375 Million in Merger Startup Helion Energy – .

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Sam Altman Invests $ 375 Million in Merger Startup Helion Energy – .


Sam Altman, co-founder and CEO of OpenAI Inc., speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco, Calif. On Thursday, October 3, 2019.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Nuclear fusion is the fleeting holy grail of climate technology. It would provide almost limitless amounts of clean energy without the byproduct of long-lived radioactive waste to deal with.
It’s also the biggest bet Sam Altman has ever made for the Silicon Valley luminary.

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

Altman was president of Silicon Valley start-up Y Combinator from 2014 to 2019 and is now CEO of Open AI, an artificial intelligence research organization, which he co-founded with Elon Musk and others. . (Musk has since stepped down, citing conflicts of interest with Tesla’s AI business.) Altman has also been a big proponent of Universal Basic Income, the idea that the government should give every citizen a salary. vital minimum to compensate for technological disruptions that make certain jobs unimportant.

Years ago, Altman made a list of technologies he wanted to get involved in, and artificial intelligence and energy were at the top of that list.

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

“From the moment I met the founders of Helion, I thought they were the best and their technical approach was by far the best,” he said.

Helion’s approach to merger

Helion’s fusion machine
Courtesy of Helion
Helion uses “pulsed magnetic fusion,” Kirtley explained. This means the company uses aluminum magnets to compress its fuel and then expand it to directly extract electricity.

Extremely high temperatures are required to create and maintain the delicate state of matter called plasma, where electrons are separated from nuclei and fusion can occur.

In June, Helion announced that it had exceeded 100 million degrees Celsius in its 6th prototype fusion generator, Trenta.

Kirtley compares Helion’s fusion machine to a diesel engine, while older tech looks more like a campfire. With a campfire, you stoke the fire to generate heat. 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 expansion of it to directly do useful work,” Kirtley said.

“By taking this new approach and some of the old physics, we can move forward and do it quickly,” Kirtley said. “The systems end up being a lot smaller, a lot faster to iterate, and that brings us to commercially useful electricity, which solves the problem of climate change, ASAP. “

Helion Energy uses aneutronic fusion, which means “they don’t have a lot of high-energy neutrons present in their fusion reaction,” according to Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation at the Clean Air Non-Purpose Task Force. lucrative.

There are still unknowns with aneutronic fusion, Rampal said.

“An aneutronic approach, like the one Helion Energy is pursuing, could have potential advantages that other approaches do not, but could also have different drawbacks and challenges to achieving commercial fusion power generation,” Rampal said. .

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

“With so much to prove for true commercial fusion approaches, approaching the problem from several different angles and trying to determine where the best pros and cons of individual technologies lie is exactly where the fusion industry should be at. this moment, ”Rampal said. CNBC.

Altman’s three-part utopian vision

For Altman, the merger is part of its global vision of growing abundance through technological innovation – a vision that sets many investors and thinkers in the climate space apart.

“Number one, I think this is our best chance to come out of the climate crisis,” Altman said.

More generally, “lowering the cost of energy is one of the best ways to improve the quality of people’s lives,” said Altman. “The correlation there is just incredibly high. “

Altman’s utopian vision has three parts.

Artificial intelligence, Altman said, will lower the cost of goods and services with exponential increases in productivity. Universal Basic Income will be needed to pay for the cost of living for people during the transition period when many jobs are being lost. And virtually unlimited, low-cost green power 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

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

“I basically think that today in the world the two limiting products that you see everywhere are intelligence, which we’re trying to work on with AI, and energy, and I think Helion has the thing. most exciting in the world right now. . “

But Altman has known that fusion has been elusive for decades. “The joke in fusion is that it’s been 30 years since 50 years,” he said.

Kirtley was also appalled at the seemingly impossible delays in bringing the merger to market. “I got into fusion, spent a few years learning all I could about fusion and all the typical approaches, and I actually moved away from fusion. I said those delays weren’t helping us, ”Kirtley told CNBC.

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

But the idea of ​​using an approaching merger with new technology made Kirtley back down.

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

The Helion Energy team.

Photo courtesy of Helion

The fundraising money announced on Friday will be used to complete construction of Polaris, Helion’s 7th generation fusion facility, which it inaugurated construction in July and which it aims to use to demonstrate net production. electricity in 2024.

Other investors in Helion include LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook co-founder. Moskovitz also participated in Friday’s fundraising round again.

The mission is personal for Kirtley, just as the fight against climate change is for many. He moved from Southern California to Washington in 2008.

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

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