Fusion Fuel Holds The Promise Of Limitless Clean Energy To Power The Planet: Dr Vivek Lall, Chief Executive, General Atomics Global Corp
General Atomics Global Corporation is led by world's leading aerospace scientist Dr. Vivek Lall. General Atomics is the global powerhouse of unmanned systems and pioneering firm in nuclear energy and space technology. Indian Navy has inducted two Sea Guardian drones on lease from GA and scouting for more for critical maritime ISR capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region. But GA's groundbreaking energy innovation in magnetic fusion research is vital scientific discovery as Fusion Fuel holds the promise of Limitless clean energy to power the Planet for millennia which could supplement existing renewables. In an exclusive interaction, Dr. Lall, Chief Executive speaks with BW Businessworld's Defence Editor Manish Kumar Jha on such critical technologies in civil nuclear, defence and space.
Navy has leased two MQ-9 drones from General Atomics. Could you tell us the range of drones that GA is offering to the Indian armed forces-Indian Army, IAF and Indian Navy?
Vivek Lall: General Atomics does offer an array of Unmanned Aircraft Systems to a global customer base. For India, both the MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian aircraft provide the capabilities the Indian Armed Forces need to address their security concerns.
The MQ-9 platform is a workhorse for the U.S. military, with more than 6 million total flight hours, most of them in combat situations.
No other platform comes close to providing the capability, response, interoperability and utility of these aircraft, and we believe the Indian people will receive the same high value for investment that America and others currently receive.
Could you share more details about India specific enhancement for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and if there is new commitment for tech and weapon systems?
Vivek Lall: One of the key attributes of our UAS is their configurability to meet customer requirements. As for the specific requirements of the Indian Armed Forces, I recommend you ask them for comment.
(On September 25, 2020, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) completed the first flight of the Protector RG Mk1 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), the fourth MQ-9B SkyGuardian air vehicle produced. The first Protector RPAS will be used to support system testing as part of a combined UK Ministry of Defence, U.S. Air Force and GA-ASI test team.)
GA's advanced Laser solid state High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon system is designed to defeat threat. Can you share some details?
Vivek Lall: GA-EMS' advanced solid state High Energy Laser (HEL) Weapon System provides proven laser technologies to enable the detection and defeat of an expanding range of targets. The system features a 100kW-class laser that is scalable to 300kW and larger, a lightweight, efficient thermal management system, HELLi-Ion Battery System, and compact Beam Director. GA-EMS' HEL Weapon System's modular, scalable design offers significant reductions in size, weight and power consumption to suit air, land and sea-based platforms.
GA-EMS has also partnered with Boeing to jointly pursue opportunities for a 100 kW-class scalable to 250 kW-class HEL weapon system to support a variety of air and missile defense applications.
Recently, General Atomic developed a compact nuclear reactor--more accurately called compact fusion pilot plant. How much is this a breakthrough in fusion Energy science?
Vivek Lall: For more than 60 years, General Atomics has been a world leader in fusion energy research, operating a series of groundbreaking fusion experiments, culminating in the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, the largest magnetic fusion research facility in the U.S. GA operates DIII-D on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.
Recently, researchers at DIII-D released a new compact fusion power plant concept that is based on the "Advanced Tokamak" concept pioneered by the DIII-D program. This enables a higher-performance, self-sustaining configuration that holds energy more efficiently than in typical pulsed configurations, allowing it to be built at a reduced scale and cost.
The compact pilot plant design is significant because the U.S. fusion community recently united behind a plan from the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee that calls for construction of a pilot plant in the U.S. in the 2040s.
That report was succeeded by another from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that calls for an even more ambitious timeline of deploying a pilot plant in the 2035-2040 timeframe.
What is its significance in limitless carbon free energy, especially in the wake of upcoming COP26 debate on low carbon economy and nuclear fusion generation in the energy mix?
Vivek Lall: As global electricity demand continues to skyrocket and we face the need to generate that electricity in a clean, carbon-free manner, it will be critical to develop new and innovative sources of energy. Fusion holds the promise to meet that need with limitless clean energy that could power the entire planet for millennia.
Fusion fuel is derived from seawater and lithium so it is extremely abundant, and the density of fusion energy exceeds all other available sources. It is estimated that a bathtub of water and the lithium in a laptop battery could fuel the lifetime energy needs of an average person.
Fusion would release no harmful gases to the atmosphere, generate no long-lived nuclear waste, and is safe enough that it could be located near major population centers that will need massive amounts of new electricity in the future. As an always-available source of energy, fusion could supplement existing renewables.
While significant research and development is still needed to prove fusion as a practical source of energy that could meet global needs, its potential to do so in a carbon-free manner is unmatched.
General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) is also working on a design concept of a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) reactor to power future astronaut missions. Any plan to work with ISRO in this area?
Vivek Lall: GA-EMS is very interested in the use of Nuclear Thermal Propulsion to advance civil and defense needs in the cislunar volume and beyond. We have a long, rich history dating back to the 1960s with space nuclear applications for programs such as NASA's and the former U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) Project Rover, NASA's Project Prometheus, and the AEC SNAP 10A reactor, the only U.S. nuclear power reactor launched into space.
Recently, GA-EMS delivered a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) reactor design concept to power future astronaut missions to Mars for a NASA-funded study. The GA-EMS design exceeded the key performance parameters and optimized the NTP reactor for manufacturability, the highest ranked figure of merit.
By leveraging our decades of experience with modern technology, we are advancing the state-of-the-art with NTP concepts that can be deployed in the near term.