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A step closer to making nuclear fusion a reality? San Diego's General Atomics partners with UK company

Jan 17, 2024

San Diego-based energy and defense corporation General Atomics has announced a partnership with Tokamak Energy, one of a growing number of private companies seeking to tap the vast but so far elusive potential of nuclear fusion as a practical source of clean energy.

Officials feel the agreement is a natural fit since Tokamak Energy develops cutting-edge high-temperature superconducting technology for incredibly powerful magnets in the fusion process while General Atomics is a world leader in manufacturing large, superconducting magnets at scale.

"The most important thing to recognize in this collaboration is that we each bring a set of highly complementary skills and expertise," said Anantha Krishnan, senior vice president for the energy group at General Atomics.

General Atomics "has a track record and a very long pedigree in fusion," Warrick Matthews, managing director at Tokamak Energy, said in a remote interview from the company's headquarters in the United Kingdom. "They really know their stuff."

Tokamak Energy gets its name from the tokamak device in which several sets of electromagnets shape and confine plasma — super-heated hydrogen gas. To achieve the fusion conditions necessary to produce energy, tokamaks heat the gas to temperatures 10 times higher than the center of the sun.

Tokamak Energy touts itself as the only private fusion company with more than 10 years of experience in designing, building and operating privately-owned tokamaks.

For its part, General Atomics operates the DIII-D (pronounced "dee-three-dee’), the largest tokamak in the U.S., on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy.

General Atomics is also a key contributor to ITER, a massive, multinational fusion facility under construction in France that is designed to prove whether fusion technology can be commercially viable. The company is fabricating and shipping the modules that make up the world's most powerful magnet — called a Central Solenoid — that will be inserted into the heart of the ITER facility.

The memorandum of understanding signed by General Atomics and Tokamak Energy also involves sharing research and know-how on magnets and high-temperature superconducting technologies for applications in other areas, including but not limited to defense (naval propulsion using magnet drive), aerospace (such as powering aircraft with hydrogen) and medicine (for things like using magnets to eliminate tumors).

"That's why I’m excited about what we can do with this partnership," Matthews said.

As for nuclear fusion, it differs from fission, which is the process used in commercial nuclear power plants such as the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Fission splits the nuclei of atoms to create power while fusion causes hydrogen nuclei to collide and fuse into helium atoms that release incredible amounts of energy — essentially replicating the power of the sun.

Since the 1950s, scientists have sought to harness fusion technology and apply it to commercial power plants.

Krishnan sees the collaboration between General Atomics and Tokamak Energy as one step toward making fusion power a reality.

"Clearly, the coming together of these two organizations is going to accelerate the process," he said, and help make sure "that we finally produce those magnets that meet the objective."

Nuclear fusion emits no greenhouse gases, leaves behind no long-lived nuclear waste and should a disturbance occur during the fusion process, the plasma cools within seconds and the reaction stops, thereby preventing the risk of a meltdown or accident like the one at Fukushima, Japan.

But fusion has its share of skeptics who doubt whether the technology will ever be harnessed to the point where a commercial power plant can be cost-effective. There's a long-running joke that fusion is always 30 years away.

"I’m a believer that it's not 30 years away," said Matthews of Tokamak Energy. "We’ve moved it from being a fundamental, impossible science problem to an engineering problem. And we can work out engineering problems to make fusion happen."

In a separate development, Tokamak Energy earlier this week was one of eight companies that combined to receive $46 million from the Department of Energy to develop fusion power plants. The Biden administration has set a goal to deliver pilot-scale fusion within a decade.

Matthews would not disclose the amount of the award Tokamak Energy received but said it is in the "single-digit millions."

Among the eight companies receiving grants is Xcimer Energy, based out of Redwood City in the Bay Area. The company said it was awarded $9 million. Rather than high-powered magnets, Xcimer concentrates on deploying lasers in the fusion process.

Laser inertial confinement made international headlines last December when researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab created "net energy" via nuclear fusion reaction for the first time.

Some 192 lasers zeroed in on a diamond-coated target roughly the size of a peppercorn, heating it to more than 3 million degrees Celsius (more than 5.4 million degrees Fahrenheit) and produced more energy than the lasers had deposited.

General Atomics assisted in the laser shot by helping make the target and other components of the experiment.

And General Atomics will work with Xcimer Energy in its fusion research on designing and building the target and other aspects of the laser experiments.

"It happens on a continuous, repetitive fashion. It's like shooting a machine gun," said Mike Farrell, vice president of the Inertial Fusion Technologies Division at General Atomics.

"The idea is to be able to produce the target, to fuel the target and then deliver the target to the intended laser interaction spot, which is inside a chamber," Farrell said, "and that chamber is like a power plant. It collects the heat that's generated and then turns the heat into steam, just like a normal power plant would."

Magnetic fusion has received government funding for decades but last December's news out of the National Ignition Facility has drawn attention and dollars to inertial fusion energy research, leading to a friendly rivalry, Farrell said.

"The fusion community has the same mission in mind," Farrell said. "How we get there is going to be different but we all want to see fusion prosper because we feel like it is the right source of energy — and every day, the sun proves that it works."

Krishnan compares the quest to make fusion a practical energy source to John F. Kennedy's pledge in 1962 to send astronauts to the moon and return them safely to Earth.

"Ultimately, it's going to depend on how badly we want to have fusion," Krishnan said. "If we want to have it badly, I think in the next 10 years, we will successfully demonstrate a fusion pilot plant concept and by the end of the 2030s, starting in the 2040s, we can have actual fusion power plants operating in the U.S. But that comes with a big ‘if’ — if sufficient resources are provided."