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ORNL to lead project on remote maintenance and repair for fusion power plants

Pictured is Venugopal Koikal Varma, group leader for ORNL’s Remote Systems group. ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
Venugopal Koikal Varma, group leader for ORNL’s Remote Systems group. ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory will lead a new project designed to accelerate bringing fusion energy to the grid.

Rising energy demands, the need for zero-carbon generation and energy security concerns are driving research on fusion energy production to provide an abundant, inherently safe, non-carbon-emitting energy source. Fusion is the same process that powers stars, including our sun. 

“Fusion is a world-changing technology that could help solve significant energy challenges,” said Phil Snyder, interim division director for ORNL’s Fusion Energy Division. “Developing the capability to remotely maintain and repair fusion power plants is essential to delivering high availability and cost effective fusion energy.”

In a fusion process, two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, while releasing energy.  The energy released is used to generate electricity using fuels commonly found in nature, including variants of hydrogen, such as deuterium and tritium. Scientists are exploring various methods to create fusion energy using large magnets in machines called tokamaks and stellarators. Understanding the maintenance needs and developing processes for fusion energy machines will be key to reducing the cost of fusion energy.

The fusion pilot plant maintenance and repair project led by Venugopal Varma, group leader for ORNL’s Remote Systems group, was a good fit in moving fusion energy research forward. In particular, the project aligns with DOE’s request for proposals to conduct basic research with a focus on accelerating the transition from discovery to commercialization of new technologies that will provide the foundation for future industries. 

ORNL and Sandia National Laboratories, along with several partnering universities — including Tuskegee University, University of Tennessee, Stanford University and Florida Atlantic University — propose to create a method to identify damage in plasma facing components; develop in-place repair methods, processes and tools; and reduce maintenance outage times.

“This project leads to the development of ’smart’ fusion energy devices,” said Varma. “Project partners are leveraging respective expertise in remote handling and materials, electro-mechanical sensors for extreme environments. They are also leveraging additive manufacturing to develop fusion pilot plant repair and maintenance processes and get real-time, actionable data to plan and address repair needs both economically and efficiently.”

Varma leads a staff of engineers, technicians and designers in developing mechanisms for extreme environments, among other projects. The U.S. fusion community has coalesced around the goal of building a fusion pilot plant as described by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM

Fusion energy developers and researchers are looking ahead and anticipating the need for fusion power reactors to meet the projected growth in energy demands. A key research focus area is structural materials science. In particular, these teams are expanding the knowledge base of the thermomechanical properties of in-vessel components that will be exposed to severe neutron and heat fluxes within the fusion environment. 

Understanding these properties and anticipating maintenance needs when designing a fusion pilot plant will enable cost-effective operations. This research will build off an ORNL project funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) that led to the first successful 3D-printing of a tungsten component for fusion applications.

“In short, our proposal aims to make the transition from a fusion pilot plant to commercially viable electricity generating fusion plants more feasible,” said Varma. “We want to bring the process that powers the sun and stars down to Earth to benefit humanity.” 

The multi-disciplinary programs are supported by Office of Science programs in Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Biological and Environmental Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, Nuclear Physics and the DOE Isotope Program. The full list of DOE project awards was announced in September 2023. 

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit