A nuclear fusion energy pioneer backed by a trio of tech industry billionaires claimed it can get a commercial-scale power plant up and running within five years, with Microsoft first in line to buy its electricity.

US-based Helion Energy said it aims to get its first plant online by 2028 with a rated capacity of “50MW or greater” in place after a one-year ramp-up.

Helion has attracted backing from a trio of deep-pocketed US tech pioneers: Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

Microsoft has put its name down as buyer of the electricity produced in what is being billed as the world’s first power deal for fusion, which aims to harness the reactions that power the sun to produce unlimited, on-demand, zero-carbon energy without most of the drawbacks of its cousin, nuclear fission (see panel).

US energy group Constellation will handle power marketing and transmission, but there are no further details of the power purchase agreement. Helion admitted the timetable is “significantly sooner than typical projections for deployment of commercial fusion power”, with even the most optimistic previously targeting the early 2030s.

CEO David Kirtley said, however: “We still have a lot of work to do, but we are confident in our ability to deliver the world’s first fusion power facility.”

Like a raft of other pioneers in the sector, Helion is racing to prove the technical credentials of its fusion technology and advance it to commercialisation fast enough to be a player in the energy transition.

The company aims to produce power from its seventh prototype next year and claims to be the first privately held fusion developer to hit 100-million-degree plasma temperatures.

It says its “long-term goal” is to deliver power at $0.01/kWh, about half the cost of the cheapest onshore wind generation seen globally.

Microsoft president Brad Smith said: “We are optimistic that fusion energy can be an important technology to help the world transition to clean energy.”

Despite the growing buzz around the technology, the sheer difficulty of the physics involved has made research in the field the subject of a standing joke that “fusion is always 30 years away”.

Some also claim that cheap wind and solar power prices, allied with storage technologies, smart networks and the massive potential of green hydrogen, undermine fusion’s case even before it is born.

Nuclear fusion - star power on earth

Nuclear fusion energy aims to harness the same reactions that power the sun to produce unlimited, on-demand, clean energy.

The process involves changing a gas to a plasma at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, often aided by superconducting magnets, to create collisions between hydrogen atoms, tapping the energy that’s produced.

Unlike its close cousin nuclear fission – basis of the current global nuclear industry, which relies on splitting rather than combining atoms – fusion is said by scientists to present no risk of the sort of runaway reaction that led to the Chernobyl disaster.

And while it is not waste-free, the by-products are said to be low and short-lived compared to fission, and much more easily manageable.