General Atomics Expresses Support for DOE Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee Report
Strategic plan describes road map for developing practical fusion energy
San Diego, December 15 – The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) has adopted and endorsed a new report that lays out a strategic plan for fusion energy and plasma science research over the next decade. The report has been two years in the making, gathering an unprecedented level of input and support from across the diverse U.S. fusion energy and plasma sciences community. General Atomics (GA) expresses its support for the report.
The strategic plan charts a path for the U.S. as it seeks to develop fusion as a potentially limitless source of carbon-free energy. The plan also embraces plasma science and technology to advance understanding of the plasma state of matter and translate this understanding into a wide range of transformative technologies in areas such as advanced manufacturing, medicine, and agriculture. The report is based on the community-led planning process that preceded the FESAC work. Multiple GA researchers contributed time and expertise to that activity. Wayne Solomon, Director of Science and Technology for Magnetic Fusion Energy at GA, was a co-chair on the community-led activity and a lead on the FESAC subcommittee that produced the report.
“Economical fusion energy would be one of the greatest scientific achievements ever – clean, safe, always-available power with a nearly limitless source of fuel,” said Dr. Tony Taylor, vice president for magnetic fusion energy at GA. “This report and the comprehensive process that produced it are critical steps toward reaching that goal.”
Fusion energy is much closer than many people realize. Decades of public investment in fusion research have resulted in a range of important advances, including the first fusion experiment that will yield net power, the ITER experiment in France. The U.S. is one of seven ITER partners, which together represent half of the world’s population and 85 percent of global GDP. ITER is now more than 70 percent complete toward first plasma operations in 2025. GA is supplying several key components for ITER, including the Central Solenoid, the largest pulsed superconducting magnet ever constructed, as well as diagnostic and support systems. (See Fusion Energy 101 explainer below for more detail on how fusion works.)
Multiple private companies are developing promising alternative paths to fusion energy as well, and investors have taken notice, pouring over a billion dollars into these efforts. The ultimate goal of both private and public investment is to develop fusion into an essentially inexhaustible source of clean, carbon-free electricity that is available at all hours of the day. Fusion uses hydrogen fuels that are abundantly available, and it creates no long-lived or high-level radioactive waste. It is inherently safe and ideally suited to complement other renewable sources of energy.
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Fusion Energy 101
- Nuclear fusion occurs when light elements such as hydrogen are brought together at extremely high temperatures and pressures, causing the nuclei to fuse into heavier elements such as helium. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy.
- Fusion differs from nuclear fission, where heavy elements are split into lighter elements, releasing energy. Fission is the process used in existing commercial nuclear power plants.
- Fusion power plants will be fueled by a mixture of hydrogen isotopes: deuterium (the nucleus comprises a proton and a neutron) and tritium (the nucleus comprises a proton and two neutrons).
- Deuterium can be extracted from seawater and tritium can be created from small amounts of lithium in the reactor, making fusion a nearly limitless, carbon-free source of energy that leaves no long-lived radioactive waste.
- One way to achieve fusion on earth is in a tokamak (a doughnut-shaped metal vacuum chamber) surrounded by extremely powerful magnets that create strong magnetic fields.
- Creating fusion in a tokamak requires that the fuel be converted into a plasma by heating it to over 100 million degrees.
- Plasma is the “fourth state of matter” in which electrons are stripped from the nuclei of their atoms. This creates an electric charge that allows the plasma to be confined by the magnetic fields within the tokamak without touching the inside walls.
- Plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe. It can be seen all around us in places such as the stars, lightning, and fluorescent light bulbs.
- Tokamaks are inherently safe – any loss of control causes the plasma to touch the inside wall, immediately cooling it and stopping the fusion reaction.