Microsoft just made a massive bet on nuclear fusion energy — and the wager has OpenAI CEO Sam Altman's name written all over it.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft has inked a deal with an Altman-backed fusion power startup called Helion Energy, which is aiming to deliver carbon-free energy by 2028. That's a wildly ambitious goal, considering that fusion has thus far evaded humanity's grasp, and a lot of experts agree that we're very unlikely to crack the fusion code for decades — if ever.
To that end, there seem to be some real stakes to this deal, especially on Helion's behalf. Per the WSJ, if the Altman-backed startup can't deliver on its goal by 2029, it'll suffer a significant (but undisclosed) financial penalty.
"We wouldn't enter into this agreement," Microsoft President Brad Smith told the WSJ, "if we were not optimistic that engineering advances are gaining momentum."
Per the WSJ, Helion says it will have a functional prototype to demo sometime this year.
Altman, for his part, seems intensely optimistic about Helion and fusion in general, telling the WSJ that he thinks the startup may be able to deliver on its promises even earlier than planned. Considering that he's reportedly put $375 million into the renewable energy firm, we're glad that he's feeling good about his investment.
"I had this belief that the two things that would matter most to making the future and raising the quality of life a lot were making intelligence and energy cheap and abundant," the OpenAI chief told the WSJ. "and that if we could do that, it would transform the world in a really positive way."
"There's some flexibility, but it is really important that there are significant financial penalties for Helion if we don't deliver," added Helion CEO David Kirtley, also speaking to the WSJ. "We think the physics of this is ready for us to signal the commercialization of fusion is ready."
But again, while we're glad these guys are enthusiastic, all fusion claims should be taken with a grain of salt. Despite one recent breakthrough in the long-sought-after technology, a lot of folks in the field believe that mankind is already too little, too late when it comes to fusion.
In any case, we'll certainly be keeping our eyes on the Helion clock. And in the meantime? We'll also be watching how much cash Microsoft continues to invest into Altman's OpenAI.
Updated to correctly identify the year the startup is hoping to produce fusion energy.
More on fusion energy: Gloomy Physicists Say Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Is Too Late to Save Us