Jeff Spitzer, chief engineer for the magnet project, explains a machine used for apply insulation to the magnet coils. Photo by Chris Jennewein

General Atomics opened a facility making the world’s largest magnets for rare public tours on Friday in honor of the nationwide Manufacturing Day.

The factory in Poway is making seven giant magnets, each weighing 250,000 pounds, for the $20 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, being built in France.

Each magnet is made of 560 turns of superconducting cables made from stands of a rare niobium-tin alloy wound around a tube that will carry liquid helium. In operation, the magnets will be cooled to -450 degrees while 50,000 amps of power are applied.

A single magnet could pick up an aircraft carrier, but their role in the ITER project is to contain a fusion reaction — literally trapping the sun in a bottle.

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.

General Atomics is a third of the way through building the first magnet, and expects the entire project to be completed in 2020.

Program Manager John Smith said the work is proceeding steadily with 50 skilled workers assigned to the project. The superconducting cables for each magnet cost $30 million and take years to make, so “we don’t want to make mistakes with it,” he said.

A hundred people toured the plant as part of Manufacturing Day, an nationwide event intended to focus attention on America’s manufacturers, their need for skilled workers and their potential for growth. There were over 30 factory tours throughout San Diego County on Friday.

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Chris Jennewein

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