A Collaborative National Center for Fusion & Plasma Research

New Jersey firm creates jobs and vital components for world-leading experiment

One of the largest scientific projects since the moon landing has Oxford Superconducting Technology in Carteret, New Jersey, humming around the clock. The company is producing nearly 10,000 miles of superconducting wire for ITER, a huge international venture being built in the south of France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion as a clean and abundant source of energy for generating electricity.
Oxford Superconducting has created new jobs, expanded its capacity and is operating three shifts a day to fill two ITER contracts that it landed in 2009. The company has hired 60 new workers, bringing its workforce to 240 employees. At the same time, “we’ve invested several million dollars in new equipment,” said Mark Glajchen, director of business development for Oxford Superconducting, a division of Oxford Instruments in Abingdon, England.
ITER represents the next major step toward the development of a commercial fusion reactor. The project will be the largest experimental fusion facility, or tokamak, ever constructed. Plans call for ITER to produce 500 million watts of fusion power for at least 400 seconds by the late 2020s, and to deliver up to 10 times more energy than will be needed to create the power.
ITER also represents an unprecedented example of scientific coordination on a global scale. The project is a joint effort of the United States with the People’s Republic of China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the Russian Federation—a partnership that includes more than half the world’s population.

This superconducting wire will become thin as a needle when Oxford Superconducting Technology finishes manufacturing it.
(Photo credit: Elle Starkman, PPPL Office Of Communications)
U.S. ITER contractors include the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), which is managed by Princeton University. More than $100 million of U.S. ITER funds will flow through PPPL for diagnostic and electric network equipment over the next 10 years. PPPL will do part of this work itself and subcontract some 60 percent of the funds to research institutions and private industry. (PPPL's work on ITER diagnostics) “Participating in ITER is vital to the mission of our Laboratory,” said PPPL director Stewart Prager. “We contribute our expertise and share in the knowledge of fusion energy that’s generated by the ITER project.”

The U.S. ITER project office has thus far awarded funding and subcontracts with a total value, including options, of up to $767 million to U.S. companies, universities and DOE laboratories. Funding for the U.S. portion of the ITER project comes from the DOE’s Office of Science through U.S. ITER at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.“These funds support manufacturing, engineering, and other high tech jobs in the United States,” said Ned Sauthoff, who leads the team executing the U.S. contributions to ITER. U.S. companies are also winning contracts from other ITER members—about $75 million so far, with more opportunities in the near future.”
Oxford Superconducting is among those suppliers with contracts from both the United States and other ITER partner nations. The company has completed an $11.6 million order that came directly from the U.S. ITER office, and is halfway through a $47.3 million contract from the European Union. When measured by the type of wire that ITER requires, Oxford Superconducting has expanded from producing a few tons a year before the orders to 30 tons a year at present.
This wire will be a key component of the ten-story tall ITER reactor vessel. When woven into giant electromagnetic coils, the strands from Oxford Superconducting and six other suppliers will produce powerful magnetic fields to confine and shape the hot charged gas called plasma that fuels fusion reactions. Superconducting wire is essential because electric current flows through it without resistance when the wire has been cooled to temperatures far below zero degrees centigrade. This free-flowing current permits superconducting electromagnets to run with relatively little electric input for extended periods of time that would cause conventional wire to overheat and burn out.
Filling the ITER orders has strengthened Oxford Superconducting’s design and manufacturing process. “The ITER quality requirements are quite rigorous, so we’ve had to increase our expertise in that area,” said Jeffrey Parrell, Oxford Superconducting vice president and general manager. “These improved skills will be with us after the project is over, and we’ve already applied them to other areas of the business as well.”
Such areas include producing the next generation of superconducting wire for particle accelerators so that scientists at DOE national laboratories such as Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., and Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., can study the basic nature of matter. “We work very closely with the laboratories to make conductor wire, which they use to make better magnets, which feeds back into our conductor design,” Parrell said.
Oxford Superconducting has spent decades honing its superconducting skills. The company began as a joint venture between a large New Jersey industrial gases company called Airco and Britain’s Oxford Instruments, a leading maker of scientific and medical devices that built the first superconducting magnet and pioneered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems. Oxford Instruments bought out Airco in 1986 to form Oxford Superconducting, which today counts MRI equipment makers among its major customers.
Producing superconducting wire is a bit like stretching taffy. The process starts with a billet—a foot-wide, copper and niobium cylinder that weighs several hundred pounds. An Oxford Superconducting supplier lengthens and narrows this to a width of about four inches through a process called extrusion. Oxford Superconducting then inserts tin rods into the billet and pulls the stretched-out cylinder through a series of smaller and smaller funnels, or dies, in a procedure called drawing down. This stretches and thins the billet until more than a dozen can be packed into a two-inch-wide tube. The company then draws down the billets some more. The final result of this constant stretching is a more than half-mile long strand of superconducting wire that is just some three-hundredths of an inch thick, or about the width of a hypodermic needle.
All this is only the first step in the production of electromagnetic coils for ITER. Oxford Superconducting ships spools of its wire to New England Wire Technologies, a U.S. ITER vendor in Lisbon, New Hampshire, which twists some 1,400 of the needle-thin strands into 1.6 inch-wide cables. These cables then go to High Performance Magnetics in Tallahassee, Florida, another U.S. ITER vendor, which encases them in stainless steel jackets called conduit and ships them to Italy, where they are wound into the final coils for ITER.
For Oxford Superconducting, winning the ITER contracts marks a rewarding result of the company’s research and development. “There’s been a long history between us and the U.S. government on collaborative efforts to develop strand capability,” said Glajchen, the director of business development at the New Jersey company. The thousands of miles of wire that Oxford Superconducting is producing for ITER thus represent “another milestone in our history of translating joint work on strand development into an application not only for the United States but globally.”

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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