General Atomics is fabricating and testing pieces of what will make up the Central Solenoid — the world’s most powerful magnet — that will be inserted into the mammoth ITER nuclear fusion project, under construction near the town of Cadarache in southern France.
The ITER project hopes to make significant headway in the development of nuclear fusion energy, a technology that its supporters say could provide the world with a practically inexhaustible supply of clean power.
The first module left the 60,000 square-foot warehouse at the General Atomics Magnetic Technologies Center in Poway in June. It was then hauled for two weeks to the Houston Ship Channel via a specially built transport truck and then shipped across the Atlantic to Marseilles, France, and arrived on July 25.
The 250,000-pound module will complete its journey to ITER (pronounced “eater”) via another specially designed truck next month.
“This is truly a major milestone in the U.S. ITER project,” James Van Dam of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy said by video on Aug. 10 at an event at the Poway warehouse that featured remarks from energy officials and elected representatives.
The second module was loaded last Friday and after reaching Houston will follow the same path to France as the first one.
“I don’t want to say it’s routine because nothing like this is routine, but it’s to the point now where we’re confident the plan we put in place will work,” said John Smith, director of engineering and projects at General Atomics.
All told, seven modules will be shipped from Poway to France. Six will be eventually stacked atop each other and placed into the heart of the ITER project, allowing for about 45,000 amps of electricity to flow through the Central Solenoid. A seventh module will act as a spare, in case something goes wrong with one of the others.
Seven feet high and 14 feet in diameter, each module is surrounded by 3.6 miles of conductor segments with six layers of insulating tape that total more than 180 miles.
The Central Solenoid is designed to generate a powerful magnetic field that steers and shapes an intensely hot, energy-producing plasma that looks like a cloud. When the hydrogen plasma reaches 150 million degrees Celsius (more than 300 million degrees Fahrenheit), fusion occurs.
That temperature is 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.
ITER is not a power plant. Rather, it’s a research project that looks to pave the way for the development of facilities that could use fusion to generate electricity. In fact, no commercial plants have ever been built and fusion power has been generated only for very short periods in the laboratory.
A coalition of 35 nations is contributing components and expertise to ITER. As part of its contribution, Japan has delivered about 26 miles of the steel-jacketed super conductor on the General Atomics modules.
The ITER site, on a plot of land covering about 445 acres, has been under construction since 2010 and is about 75 percent complete. The first tests of the plasma are set for 2025.
Nuclear fusion is different from the nuclear fission process seen at 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 tremendous amounts of energy.
Nuclear fusion led to the development of the hydrogen bomb and since the 1950s, scientists and researchers have searched for a way to use fusion as a source of electricity.
Proponents believe fusion could be an ideal energy source since the deuterium fuel needed is readily available from seawater and its only by-product would be helium. Fusion emits no greenhouse gases.
“This will transform the world,” Van Dam said.
But fusion has its detractors. Skeptics sometimes repeat an old jibe that fusion as a practical source of power is always 30 years away. Others question whether fusion can be harnessed as a practical source of energy and some environmental groups oppose nuclear power of any type.
The ITER project was expected to cost about $7 billion but more recent estimates say the costs could ultimately run 10 times higher, leading some critics to say the price tag is diverting resources from other energy projects.
In May, ITER Director General Bernard Bigot said in a media briefing that due to complications with global supply chains related to COVID-19, the project will face higher costs and testing delays. Bigot did not elaborate but told reporters he expects to deliver an assessment by the end of the year that will include specifics.
Smith said General Atomics has experienced no pandemic-related delays on its work on the modules.
The U.S. contribution makes up about 9 percent of ITER’s costs but the U.S. will receive access to 100 percent of the project’s data and intellectual property, which would prove valuable in the development of future fusion programs and power plants.
Originally, ITER stood for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor but in recent years, organizers sought to disassociate the name from thermonuclear weapons since the project does not produce the fissile materials needed to build an explosive. Instead, they now prefer to emphasize the Latin word “iter,” which means “the way.”
Read More: Poway’s General Atomics ships first piece of world’s most powerful magnet to France