General Atomics to develop silicon carbide materials for fusion power plants

2 February 2024

The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science has awarded a three-year contract to US-based General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) to develop a scalable, cost-competitive path to manufacture silicon carbide (SiC) and SiC composite foam materials for advanced fusion power plants.

GA-EMS President Scott Forney said SiC and SiC foam will provide significant advantages in efficiency and longevity to support fusion power plant applications. “Foam made of SiC is a highly effective insulator that prevents unwanted heat transfer and is extremely resistant to radiation compared with other insulating materials that degrade over time. Our unique manufacturing method allows us to finely control the properties of the material and provides a cost-effective approach for the fabrication of SiC foam specifically engineered for the fusion environment.”

GA-EMS is developing high temperature ceramic-based composites for the nuclear environment, including a SiC composite based technology. This SiGA cladding is the material of choice under DOE’s Accident-Tolerant Fuel (ATF) programme. This aims to develop and demonstrate nuclear fuel rods capable of surviving temperatures far beyond that of current materials. GA-EMS will leverage its high temperature ceramic fabrication and fusion test facilities to demonstrate the path toward manufacturing first-of-kind SiC and SiC foam materials.

Christina Back, Vice President of GA-EMS Nuclear Technologies & Materials.said: “We are developing the path forward to customise and test our SiC materials and composites at the dimensions, scale, and performance metrics required for application to fission and magnetic fusion programs in support of future nuclear power plants.”

According to Brian Grierson, Director of General Atomics' Energy Group's Fusion Pilot Plant Design Hub, advanced materials such as SiC and SiC composites will increase efficiency, reduce waste, and make fusion facilities more cost effective. In October 2022, General Atomics outlined its concept for a fully integrated fusion pilot plant in. The concept utilises SiC–based materials that can withstand the intense conditions within a high-power fusion device

General Atomics (GA) has been leading magnetic fusion research since the 1950s. The DIII-D National Fusion Facility, operated by GA for DOE, is the largest magnetic fusion research facility in the US. GA is the principal US private sector participant in thermonuclear fusion research through DIII-D and its inertial confinement programmes for DOE.

GA is also a key partner in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction at Cadarache in France. GA is manufacturing major components for this project, including the Central Solenoid – the world's largest pulsed superconducting electromagnet – and several key diagnostics systems. GA has constructed more than 60 TRIGA nuclear research reactors in 24 countries and is developing next-generation nuclear fission and high-temperature materials technologies.

Image courtesy of General Atomics

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