US steel giant Nucor said it aims to have one of its facilities running on fusion power as soon as 2030 in what’s being billed as a landmark deal for the much-vaunted nuclear technology.

Nucor and fusion start-up Helion will collaborate to develop a 500MW plant providing baseload zero-carbon power to one of the steelmaker’s sites, the two said on Wednesday.

“Nucor and Helion are working together to set a firm timeline and are committed to beginning operations as soon as possible with a target of 2030,” said the partners in what they claimed as a "historic" industrial collaboration.

The US metals group will invest $35m in Helion, which has already made waves in the sector by signing what’s said to be the world’s first power purchase agreement with Microsoft for fusion energy, 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).

Helion has already 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.

Nucor CEO Leon Topalian said: "We believe in the technology Helion is building and are proud to make this investment.

“This agreement with Helion, along with recent investments in clean energy, can change the entire energy landscape and forever change the world, embracing a clean energy future we could have hardly imagined a few years ago."

Helion is one of around a dozen main contenders 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.

The company admitted at the time of the Microsoft deal that its timetable is “significantly sooner than typical projections for deployment of commercial fusion power”, with even the most optimistic previously targeting the early 2030s.

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.

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