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GA’s 4Pi Tool Lays the Groundwork for Fusion

ENERGY: Manufacturing Targets Requires Precision; Tolerances Are Tight

SAN DIEGO – Breakthroughs in science, technology and manufacturing are often made possible by new kinds of tools. So, it is little surprise that during the quest to create sustainable nuclear fusion, substantial effort has gone into producing a tool that can support the components of such experiments.

San Diego-based General Atomics is the government contractor providing targets for Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) experiments at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The targets are BB-sized objects containing hydrogen fuel.

The privately held business recently offered a glimpse into the making of those targets: It produces a number of them, and then uses its new tool to select the targets best suited for the task.

GA says the system, known as 4Pi, has led to improved experimental results and higher yields.

As of June 3, there have been at least five instances of fusion ignition, beginning with the much publicized, groundbreaking first successful experiment in December.

“General Atomics is proud to launch a new era of integrated characterization to the field of ICF research,” said Haibo Huang, deputy director of GA’s Center of Excellence in Advanced Diagnostics and 4Pi Project Lead, in a statement issued by the company. “The 4Pi system allows multiple instruments with complementary capabilities to examine the same target from different perspectives and gain much deeper insights. With increasingly intricate and complex targets needed to create record-breaking ignition yields, this integrated approach is indispensable.”

GA says its 4Pi system combines up to eight instruments within one common coordinate system, including robotics, automation, batch evaluation and machine learning technologies, to avoid measurement errors that can occur when a target is manually transferred from one instrument to another and identify the best targets from each production batch.

In ICF, high-powered lasers are used to rapidly compress a target filled with hydrogen fuel, causing the atoms to fuse together and release a significant amount of energy. A target achieves “ignition” when the amount of energy released in the reaction is greater than what was delivered to the target.

The quality of targets is a key element to achieving ignition, and fabricating them is a highly challenging process, GA says, as each one is approximately 2mm in diameter and fabricated at sub-micron tolerances. The slightest defects and non-uniformities affect the behavior of the fuel when the target is compressed and features smaller than 1/100th the diameter of a human hair could prevent ignition from occurring.

Two instruments on the 4Pi system specifically assisted in the recent ignition breakthroughs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s NIF. These include the Digital Holographic Microscope, which identifies defects on the surface of targets, and the Fourier-Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscope, which maps variations in the thickness of a target’s wall.

General Atomics
FOUNDED: 1955
CEO: Neal Blue
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego (Torrey Pines Mesa)
BUSINESS: Defense contractor and technology company
REVENUE: $3.1 billion (Forbes estimate)
WEBSITE: www.ga.com
CONTACT: 858-455-3000
NOTABLE: The company was founded as a division of General Dynamics in 1955. Following sever-al ownership changes, brothers Neal and Linden S. Blue bought it in 1986.

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