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The nuclear fusion division of San Diego-based General Atomics has a new boss.

Wayne Solomon has been promoted from deputy director to vice president of the company’s Magnetic Fusion Energy Division. The move comes at a time when greater attention has focused on whether nuclear fusion technology can live up to its long sought-after potential as a power source.

“A confluence of events has set the stage for rapid advancements in fusion energy in the coming years,” Solomon said in a statement, “and I look forward to working with the team to secure an inspiring and rewarding future for everyone in (the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division) as we strive to make fusion energy a reality.”

Wayne Solomon, new vice president for the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division at San Diego-based General Atomics.

Wayne Solomon, new vice president for the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division at San Diego-based General Atomics.

(General Atomics)

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Solomon first came to General Atomics in 2016 when he was named deputy director of the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, where a powerful magnetic chamber fuses hydrogen atoms at extraordinarily high temperatures to recreate the power of the sun. DIII-D is operated by General Atomics for the U.S. Department of Energy.

General Atomics management said the Magnetic Fusion Energy Division’s outgoing vice president, Tony Taylor, will stay on as a Fellow within the division. Taylor has worked at General Atomics and in fusion research for more than four decades.

Nuclear fusion is not to be confused with nuclear fission — the process that splits an atom and then can be used to generate electricity at nuclear power plants, such as the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. In fusion, atoms are joined together to create vast amounts of energy.

Fusion was used to create the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s and since then, scientists and researchers have tried to harness it and generate electricity at commercial power plants. At least in theory, fusion could supply a nearly limitless supply of power. Among its attributes, fusion leaves behind no long-lived or highly dangerous radioactive waste and emits no greenhouse gases.

With more governments concentrating on decarbonization efforts, nuclear fusion has taken on greater importance, which has been highlighted by the discussion of energy dependence in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But through the decades, fusion power has been generated only for short periods in the laboratory and no commercial reactors exist. Even under ideal circumstances, many researchers say commercial operations are about 20 years away.

Work at the DIII-D facility at General Atomics features a tokamak — a doughnut-shaped metal vacuum chamber surrounded by incredibly powerful magnets. Fuel consisting of hydrogen isotopes can be converted into plasma by heating the fuel to more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit. Pronounced “dee-three-dee,” DIII-D is the largest tokamak in the United States.

DIII-D has been instrumental in the design of ITER, a mammoth multinational fusion project under construction in France.

General Atomics is deeply involved in the ITER project, fabricating and shipping six modules that will be inserted into the heart of the ITER facility. Two of the modules that will make up what’s called ITER’s Central Solenoid — the world’s most powerful magnet — have already been delivered to the project’s site in southern France. A seventh module will also be shipped, acting as a spare.

ITER, pronounced “eater,” will not produce a working power plant but the experiment is designed to show whether fusion technology is commercially viable.

Fusion has its critics who doubt whether it will ever generate more energy than it takes to run a potential fusion facility. The ITER project has been plagued by cost overruns and delays.

Last month, as first reported by New Energy Times, welding work on a giant reactor vessel was halted until safety concerns were addressed. ITER officials told Science magazine the intend satisfy the concerns next month and resume welding in July. Estimates to construct the facility have climbed to to at least $25 billion.

An announcement of the United Kingdom last month inspired some hope.

Experiments at the Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory in England produced 11 megawatts for more than five seconds. That doesn’t sound like much but JET scientists said it doubled the amount of energy produced by similar tests in 1997 and validates the design choices used in the ITER project.

“The JET experiments put us a step closer to fusion power,” Joe Milnes, head of operations at the reactor lab, told the BBC. “We’ve demonstrated that we can create a mini-star inside of our machine and hold it there for five seconds and get high performance, which really takes us into a new realm.”

The Biden administration on Thursday hosted a White House Fusion Summit “exploring the promise of the technology and the remaining challenges” and announced the Department of Energy a will adopt long-term strategy “to accelerate the viability of commercial fusion energy in partnership with the private sector.”

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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