General Atomics Chairman and CEO Neal Blue in front of a machine winding the first magnet. Photo by Chris Jennewein
General Atomics Chairman and CEO Neal Blue in front of a machine winding the first magnet coil. Photo by Chris Jennewein

General Atomics began winding giant magnet coils in Poway Friday that will play a key role in the largest experiment in human history — building a fusion reactor on Earth.

“If you look out in the night sky there are a hundred billion trillion fusion reactors. They are stars,” said Dr. John Parmentola, a senior vice president of General Atomics. “What we have to figure out is how to make it work here.”

Developing reliable fusion reactors would provide virtually limitless, environmentally friendly power on Earth. Fusion converts hydrogen from water directly into energy, but takes place at temperatures found only in the sun, creating an enormous engineering challenge.

The magnet coils will form the central part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a joint project of the United States, the European Union, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia. The $20 billion reactor is being built in France and is expected to begin operation in 2026.

The super-conducting magnet will control a 100-million-degree burning plasma, literally “bringing a star to earth,” explained Dr. Ned Sauthoff, director of the U.S. ITER project office.

Neal Blue, chairman and CEO of General Atomics, said the magnet is a milestone for his company and its development has led to spinoff technology such as electromagnetic catapults for aircraft carriers and electric-powered Naval guns.

“It is the most powerful magnet in the world, which will become the heartbeat of the ITER reactor,” said Blue.

The six magnet coils plus a seventh spare will weigh 120 tons each and together will form the “central solenoid” of the ITER reactor. General Atomics said the winding won’t be finished until 2017.

The completed unit will be powerful enough to lift three Washington Monuments.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.