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Inslee draws new energy from his visit to merger companies in Everett

Inslee draws new energy from his visit to merger companies in Everett

EVERETT – In the race to combat climate change, two Everett companies are developing technologies to generate electricity through fusion, a potential carbon-free energy source.

On Tuesday, Helion Energy and Zap Energy provided Governor Jay Inslee and the state’s climate advisers with insight into their operations.

Both companies have multi-million dollar investments and aim to develop fusion energy plants that can generate electricity at a commercial level.

The Pacific Northwest is emerging as a major fusion center, with six companies – Helion, Zap Energy, Avalanche Energy, Exofusion and Kyoto Fusioneering – taking the lead.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electricity generation in the United States is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat and warm the planet.

“We really appreciate this ambition here because we are in a race against climate change,” Inslee said at his first stop, Helion Energy.

Helion’s fusion generator heats fusion fuel to over 100 million degrees Celsius and generates electricity directly from it using a “highly efficient pulse process,” the company said.

Zap Energy, founded in 2017 by researchers at the University of Washington, takes a different approach: It passes large electrical currents through a thin filament of plasma, a hot state of matter that generates enormous amounts of energy. The resulting energy could then be used to drive a conventional steam turbine and generate electricity.

It is complicated, complex science and technology.

It is important to note, Inslee said, that fusion is not nuclear fission.

“It’s not your mother’s nuclear power plant,” he said.

In nuclear fission, energy is produced by splitting atoms, while in nuclear fusion, energy is produced by colliding atoms at extremely high temperatures.

In contrast to nuclear fission, there are no core meltdowns in fusion power plants and no significant amounts of radioactive waste are produced.

Fusion is the energy that powers the sun and therefore this week’s extreme heat wave.

The sun shines because it continuously fuses hydrogen into helium.

However, to achieve the same reaction on Earth, much higher temperatures are required: over 100 million degrees Celsius, compared to a comfortable 15 million degrees Celsius on the Sun.

Scientists have been trying to build fusion generators for more than 75 years.

While progress has been made, critics argue that “fusion power has been one of those things that is ‘only 20 years away’ for about 50 years,” according to an article this year on Space.com.

“While it is relatively easy to cause fusion, it is much more difficult to carry out the reaction slowly and in a controlled manner while extracting usable energy from it,” Space.com concluded.

Helion Energy and Zap Energy are apparently too busy, too determined and too optimistic to listen to the critics.

Last year, Helion agreed to supply Microsoft with electricity from the company’s first fusion power plant, which is scheduled to come online in 2028. The company also agreed to develop a 500-megawatt fusion power plant at a Nucor Corporation steel manufacturing plant in the United States. (That’s enough electricity to power 360,000 homes for a year.)

“We are on schedule and working as fast as we can,” Helion CEO David Kirtley told visitors. “We have figured out how to do more as quickly as possible.”

Helion Energy was founded in 2013 and moved from Redmond to a 13,000-square-foot warehouse near Paine Field.

Since then, the number of employees has grown from 70 to 300, said Helion spokeswoman Jessie Barton. About half of the current workforce consists of engineers and technicians, including graduates of Everett Community College and Shoreline Community College, Barton said.

“We build the parts for our systems right here in Everett,” Kirtley said.

Inslee’s second stop was Zap Energy. In a recent demonstration, the company heated plasma to tens of millions of degrees Celsius, surpassing the temperature of the sun. Last year, Zap Energy received $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program.

The company recently expanded and opened a second location in Everett. It currently employs 150 people, 80 percent of whom are scientists and engineers, said a Zap Energy spokesman who asked not to be identified.

“In 2022, we raised $169 million,” Uri Shumlak, co-founder and chief scientist, told visitors.

Shumlak has been researching fusion technologies since he was a student at the University of Washington 30 years ago. When he asked his supervisor about current fusion methods and suggested a different approach, the supervisor told him he had a great idea and should “figure it out.”

Fusion is a dense energy source that produces ten million times more energy than coal, he told Inslee.

The company is developing relatively small fusion power plants, “lightning in a bottle,” about 2.74 by 2.74 meters in size and large enough to generate 100 megawatts of electricity or supply 10,000 homes.

“We’re all doing our best,” said Brian Nelson, co-founder and chief technology officer.

According to Nelson, Zap Energy’s target date for developing a commercially viable fusion system for electricity generation is “the early 2030s.”

“I am convinced that this technology will change the world, provided it can be successful,” Inslee said. “No one doubts the challenge. If it works, it can save our children from pollution, curb climate change and reduce health risks.”

During the last legislative session, Inslee signed a bill to establish a state agency task force to promote fusion innovation and related approvals.

Janice Podsada: 425-339-3097; [email protected]; Twitter: @JanicePods.

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