World’s most powerful magnet is ready! Here’s everything about ITER Tokamak

“Fusion is one of the few potential options for large-scale carbon-free energy production,” says John Smith, General Atomics, Director of Engineering and Projects

ITER Tokamak
This schematic shows the completed Central Solenoid (blue/yellow column) at the center of the ITER tokamak. The Central Solenoid will drive the plasma current that makes fusion possible. The confined fusion plasma is the pink area inside the tokamak. (Photo source: US ITER.)

After a decade of design and fabrication, General Atomics is ready to ship the first module of the Central Solenoid, the world’s most powerful magnet. It will become a central component of ITER, a machine that replicates the fusion power of the Sun. ITER is being built in southern France by 35 partner countries.

World renowned scientist Dr Vivek Lall, Chief Executive, General Atomics Global Corporation, earlier this year in February 2021 had told Financial Express Online that “The ITER (International Nuclear Fusion Research and Engineering) project remains on schedule to begin operations in 2025, which is a remarkable achievement given the impact of the global pandemic. This year, site construction surpassed the 70 percent mark, and assembly of the ITER device itself began, using components fabricated and contributed by the member nations.”

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In an exclusive interview John Smith, General Atomics, Director of Engineering and Projects, talks about the complexities of the project with Huma Siddiqui.

Following are excerpts:

Can you please elaborate on what is ITER’s mission and GA’s overall role in it?

ITER is an international collaboration with its mission to prove the fundamental feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. The experimental campaign that will be carried out at ITER is crucial to advancing fusion science and preparing the way for the fusion power plants of tomorrow.

This photo shows the installation of the first superconducting magnet, Poloidal Field Coil #6, in the tokamak pit at the ITER construction site. The Central Solenoid will be mounted in the center after the vacuum vessel has been assembled. (Photo source: ITER Organization._


GA has been involved in the development of fusion energy for more than 50 years, and it continues to support fusion science with the operation of the United States’ largest fusion experiment, the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, for the US Department of Energy Office of Science.

GA is primarily supporting ITER through fabrication of the Central Solenoid. However, GA is also developing a range of other technologies and components for ITER. These include high-power microwave transmission line components, three advanced diagnostic systems, software for real-time plasma control, and methods to prevent uncontrolled collapse of ITER plasmas.

One reads of the central solenoid being shipped to France. Can you describe why this is an important milestone and the technical capabilities involved.

The Central Solenoid is often referred to as the “beating heart” of ITER because it plays a critical role in containing and heating the fusion plasma inside the ITER tokamak. It is among the most significant projects General Atomics has been involved in, not just because of the scale of the fabrication process but also because of its impact on the world’s energy future. GA has been working for 10 years on the development of the manufacturing and processes necessary to complete this first module.

The Central Solenoid module, the first of seven, will be shipped from San Diego to a port in Houston on an oversized 24-axle tractor trailer. As with any heavy transport operation, the shipment is being coordinated with local and federal authorities to ensure safety and reduce the impact on local traffic. The module will be loaded on a ship for transport to a port near Marseille, France. From there it will be transported along the same route as many of the other large ITER components from around the world.

Please describe the complexity of a global multi nation project like this and how it is coordinated.

There is no question that ITER is the most complex scientific collaboration in history. The design, engineering, and construction of ITER has required close global collaboration from thousands of scientists and engineers around the world. This unprecedented effort has been enabled by the 35 member nations’ commitment to achieving fusion energy and their understanding of its importance.

ITER’s member nations share the cost of project construction, operation and decommissioning, and in turn also share the experimental data and intellectual property ITER generates. Members actually deliver relatively little direct monetary contributions. Instead, 90 percent of contributions are in the form of completed components, systems or buildings.

Can you describe for our readers fusion in a nutshell and why GA’s role is critical to the future of world energy needs?

Fusion is the same process that powers the sun and the stars. A small amount of deuterium and tritium (hydrogen) gas is injected into a large, donut-shaped vacuum chamber, called a tokamak. The hydrogen is heated until it becomes an ionized plasma. Giant superconducting magnets, integrated with the tokamak, confine and shape the ionized plasma, keeping it away from the metal walls. When the plasma is sufficiently heated and contained by the magnetic field (around 150 million degrees Celsius), fusion of the hydrogen occurs. In these fusion reactions, a tiny amount of mass is converted to a huge amount of energy. Coolant circulating in the tokamak walls receives the heat and the energy is converted to steam as in a commercial fission reactor where this steam drives turbines to produce electricity.

Fusion is one of the few potential options for large-scale carbon-free energy production, and GA is very proud to be a part of this landmark project. As the world transitions to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, continual base load generation will be necessary for a secure grid. Fusion offers a safe, clean, always-on resource that produces no emissions or long-lived waste products. ITER is a major step in this direction that will demonstrate the physics and technology on the way to fusion power plants.

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