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Nucor bets on silver bullet for green’ steel: Nuclear fusion

The steelmaking giant said Helion Energy would build a fusion reactor by 2030 at one of Nucor’s steel plants. But fusion is still more dream than reality.
By Eric Wesoff

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In the foreground is a green grassy field with bokeh lighting effect, in the background is a large industrial site
(Sina Schuldt/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

Nucor, America’s biggest steel supplier and recycler, is investing $35 million in Helion Energy, a nuclear-fusion energy startup that has already received eye-popping amounts of backing from OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and investors Dustin Moskovitz, Mithril Capital and Capricorn Investment Group.

In a press release, Helion sketches out a wildly ambitious target for the dawn of the ferro-fusion age: By 2030, it will build out a 500-megawatt power plant at one of Nucor’s U.S. steel mills, selling the electricity directly to the steelmaker to fuel its electric arc furnaces.

Steelmaking is one of humanity’s most crucial and energy-intensive manufacturing processes; depending on which expert one prods, steel production is responsible for 7 percent to 11 percent of the globe’s anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

Nucor already makes its steel using what’s currently the cleanest method available for use at mass-manufacturing scale: recycling scrap metal in an electric arc furnace. While the process is extremely energy-intensive, it emits up to 75% less of the greenhouse gases belched out during traditional blast-furnace-based steelmaking. Because the process uses electricity as a heat source, it’s a good fit for electrification. Powering electric arc furnaces with renewable energy is thought to be one of the most straightforward, near-term paths to producing green steel.”

According to a Nucor fact sheet, about 40 percent of the electricity Nucor uses comes from clean or renewable energy sources, but the company says that to get to 100 percent clean energy, we will need an always-on, affordable baseload source of zero-carbon electricity.”

With its new investment and partnership, Nucor is betting that nuclear fusion, a potentially limitless clean energy source that is presently limited to science-fiction novels, can provide that baseload power and help clean up one of the world’s dirtiest industries by the end of this decade. (Check out Canary’s previous reporting for a rundown on fusion fundamentals.)

The energy used to produce green steel could also come from other sources, like nuclear fission, or from renewables like solar and wind paired with energy storage, all of which have an actual track record of producing commercial power. Last year, Nucor announced a nuclear-fission-related investment in NuScale Power, a small modular reactor company that finally got one of its designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the beginning of this year, although it’s still years away from commercial deployment. Nucor has also signed power-purchase agreements to buy hundreds of megawatts’ worth of solar-powered electricity.

Helion has ambitious near-term plans aside from its Nucor partnership. It aims to build a fusion device capable of demonstrating net electricity production by 2024, David Kirtley, founder and CEO of the company, told Canary Media in an interview two years ago. (Helion told me in an email that the company is still on track to build the device next year and begin operations soon after.)

Since it was founded in 2013, Helion has raised more than $600 million, including the Nucor stake. Overall, the global fusion industry has garnered a cumulative $6.21 billion in investment, with close to $3 billion in VC money flowing to startups including Commonwealth Fusion Systems, TAE Energy and Avalanche Energy in recent years.

We’re still boiling water

Despite all of humanity’s scientific progress, space ages, enlightenments and renaissances, we still produce a lot of our power in the 21st century simply by boiling water to generate steam and spin turbines. All too often, that water is boiled by burning feedstocks such as oil, gas, wood or dung. Commercial nuclear power plants boil water using a fission reaction. And most of the fusion startups Canary has profiled plan to use the results of the fusion reaction to boil water.

But Helion is taking a different approach. It intends to bypass boiling water and instead convert fusion energy directly into electricity.

Since fusion is already electromagnetic and all the energy is in charged particles, you have to hold it with a magnetic field anyway. So why don’t we figure out how to directly harness that electricity?” said Helion’s CEO.

In other words, if you stay in the electromagnetic realm, you won’t lose any energy by making a thermal conversion. All of this electromagnetic action will take place inside a 40-foot-long dumbbell-shaped vessel.

A cutaway diagram showing the interior and exterior of a white dumbbell-shaped device
Helion claims its plasma accelerator can raise fusion fuel to 100 million degrees Celsius. (Helion)

While nuclear fission plants have been providing electricity around the world since the 1950s, power from nuclear fusion has never become viable in spite of decades of interest and funding.

Helion claims that advances in computer processing, power electronics and fiber-optic communications can help it achieve its aggressive commercialization targets.

Proclamations that fusion will be commercially deployed in the near term” or by the early 2030s” are not hard to come by.

And Nucor is not the only notable entity lured by the elusive promise of fusion: Earlier this year, Microsoft announced plans to purchase electricity generated by a Helion fusion plant with a capacity of at least 50 megawatts that’s slated to be online by 2028. (This won’t happen by 2028.) And Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Energy Secretary, said last week that the Biden administration is aiming to create a commercial nuclear fusion facility within 10 years.

But for now, the technology remains far too speculative to hang decarbonization efforts on — whether for the grid or for green steel.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.