DOE: Launching Jets from Aircraft Carriers with Fusion Technology

DOE: Launching Jets from Aircraft Carriers with Fusion Technology

How technologies developed for fusion have taken on second lives in industry.

A recent U.S. Department of Energy feature story on spinoffs from fusion energy research highlighted General Atomics’ development of aircraft carrier catapult technology. An excerpt from the article appears below.

While smartphone components are some of our smallest technologies, fusion research has also set the stage for improving some of the world's biggest ones: aircraft carriers.

In the 1990s, the Department of Defense (DOD) realized that they could do better than the steam and hydraulic-powered catapults on aircraft carriers in use at the time. So they released a request for proposals for a technology that could store a huge amount of energy and release it almost instantaneously — over and over again.

Researchers at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, an Office of Science user facility run by General Atomics (GA), were familiar with those challenges. In fact, they had to solve a similar problem back in 1978 before they could get a new iteration of their reactor up and running.

"GA is in a unique position to drive technology innovations, given its long history of using scientific research results to develop cross-cutting practical applications," said John Rawls, chief scientist at GA.

To control the 100-million-degree plasma inside of it, the DIII-D reactor produces huge magnetic fields. The machine creates and maintains these fields by running tremendous amounts of energy through giant magnets. When GA scientists designed the machine with funding from the Office of Science's predecessor in the 1970s, they developed the controls and inverters to release and control those bursts of energy.

Based on that expertise and existing technology, DOD chose GA to develop the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). This system speeds an aircraft down the deck of a carrier using a linear induction motor coupled to the same type of inverters that provided such precise electrical and magnetic control at DIII-D. The performance of the induction motor can be finely controlled to deliver the precise amount of acceleration and velocity necessary to launch an aircraft of a specific size and weight. Because it's much more precise than previous systems, EMALS minimizes the physical stress put on the aircraft, increasing their lifespans, and reducing costs.

Today, the U.S. Navy is using EMALS on the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78). It is also installing EMALS on all future Ford-class aircraft carriers.

"We were able to advance numerous first-of-kind technologies, including the creation of the world's most powerful linear motor and new inverter drives, to produce an integrated EMALS system that has a smaller footprint, greater efficiency, and requires less manning and maintenance to help save costs and improve reliability," said Scott Forney, president of General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. "To top it off, we offer a flexible design that has the potential for installation on other platforms requiring different catapult configurations and aircraft support."