A Magnet Maker Joins an International Experiment That Could Change the World

Tom Painter’s Path
Dave Barfield
Engineer Tom Painter inside his shop at Compass Pointe with a compaction mill|!!| a specialized machine that compacts a steel tube snugly around a superconducting cable.

It sounds like science fiction: a giant ball of star-energy suspended inside an enormous chamber, providing the world with clean power.

But sci-fi it’s not. It’s an international science project based in France called ITER (pronounced “eater”), which in Latin means the way or path. Thousands of Americans now work on this futuristic energy experiment, including several researchers at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee. MagLab engineer Tom Painter is one of them.

“Working on ITER is definitely exciting because it could be a world changer,” says Painter, 48. “I would love to be able to tell my grandchildren that I helped deliver even one small component to this project and made it successful.”

To work on ITER, however, Painter first had to accomplish several big tasks. Perhaps the biggest: He had to start his own company — something he’d always wanted to do — so he could bid on an ITER contract. He also needed a unique place to house his new business, someplace where he could lay out a half-mile of expensive ITER cable. He would need to slash his time at the Mag Lab, too — from 40 to 10 and 20 hours a week — in order to get his fledgling company, High Performance Magnetics, off the ground. 

“There’s a whole lot of uncertainty in becoming an entrepreneur,” he allows. “My own money was at risk.”

But the opportunity to become his own boss and work on ITER was just too compelling. He took the leap.

ITER: What Is It?

ITER is an experiment to create fusion, a type of nuclear energy, on a scale never before attempted. The genesis for ITER came in 1985, but the chamber where the fusion reactions will take place — called a tokomak — won’t be operational until 2020. And while ITER began as an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the words “thermonuclear” and “experimental” sitting side-by-side made many people uneasy; today the ITER community prefers to link its namesake with its Latin meaning.

Fusion is literally star power: Our sun’s warmth and light are the result of fusion reactions. Fusion happens when the nucleus inside a hydrogen atom smashes into the nucleus of another hydrogen atom, causing the two nuclei to fuse into heavier helium atoms. When they fuse, they release tremendous energy.

But fusion is not the type of energy produced in today’s nuclear plants. That’s fission. Fission (which in Latin means to split apart) is what happens when an atom’s nucleus is split open. Fission, when done slowly, can generate electricity. When released all at once, it’s an atom bomb. 

“Fission and fusion are similar in that both get away from continuing to rely on oil,” Painter says. “The advantage of fusion over fission is that it’s cleaner and safer.”

Nuclear fission plants, such as the Fukushima facility in Japan, have had meltdowns that result in environmental and human disasters.

But fusion is quite a different process, Painter and others say. 

Big Technology, Big Bucks

“I liken fusion to trying to light a match on a cold, wet, windy night in the forest. It’s very hard to get the reaction to start, and if anything happens, it just goes out,” Painter says. “And because it’s made from gases and not heavy metals, there’s very little radioactive waste. Fission waste lasts for tens of thousands of years. But with fusion, the byproducts — the reactor and whatnot — become benign in about 40 years.”

So why aren’t we using fusion to power our communities now?

Well, it’s complicated. Literally. To contain and control such power is tremendously complex: The ITER tokomak alone will have more than a million parts. It’s also supremely expensive: The latest estimate puts the cost for ITER’s tokomak and other building at roughly $21 billion. It took seven of the world’s most technologically savvy powers — the U.S., the European Union, Russia, Japan, China, India and South Korea, which represent 34 countries and half the world’s population — to join together to create and pay for ITER. 

One of the biggest problems with a massive fusion reaction is that there’s no material that can contain it.

“Fusion recreates the power and the conditions inside the sun, and all that energy is very hot: 100 million degrees,” Painter says. “It can’t be contained in any material.”

So how do ITER’s top scientists plan to control such a big, hot mess?

“They’re going to contain it with high magnetic fields. They’re going to levitate it in space and contain it inside the tokomak (estimated to weigh 23,000 tons when finished — about the weight of three Eiffel Towers).”

Coming in for a Landing

This is where researchers such as Painter, who got his master’s degree in engineering from MIT, enter the picture. Painter’s an expert in high-magnetic fields and magnets that use superconducting wire — wires that conduct electricity without resistance or loss of energy. The catch with superconducting wire, however, is that it must be kept extremely cold using liquid helium, an expensive resource. 

In 2011, Painter put his expertise with superconductors to work for ITER. He and his team of eight employees at High Performance Magnetics began to set up the tools and equipment they needed to insert a half-mile-long cable of very expensive superconducting wire inside a protective metal tube of conduit.

Now, on most days, you’ll find him out on a barren stretch of flat, sandy terrain at the old Tallahassee airport, now a private airport. It’s next to the city’s new airport and about six miles from the MagLab. 

Painter had two buildings constructed that are 800 meters, or about one-half mile, apart. Between the two buildings, he placed a row of 140 steel posts connected by a long steel beam. Each post rests on a concrete foundation anchored five feet into the ground.

Painter’s contract requires his team to weld together eight 100-meter-long tubes of conduit, then place this one half-mile metal tube onto the posts. Then the exacting process of pulling the expensive cable of superconducting wires through the tube of conduit begins.

Superconducting wire costs about 10 times what regular copper wire costs, making the cable his team inserts worth about $5 million — which is one reason having this part of his business behind the private airport’s security is a necessity. 

In addition to making sure his materials and machines would be safe from harm, Painter also worked with the state to relocate some endangered gopher tortoises from the area. That took several months and had to be done before any construction began.

The contract has included some travel, too. He’s gone to the ITER site in Cadarache, in southern France, on several occasions, as well as to an ITER meeting in Japan.

“In Japan, we went to the forge where they actually melt the metal, and we also went to the place where they actually make the tubes. It was pretty exciting.” 

Early Lessons Pay Off

To set up his super-specialized, high-tech company, Painter sought the help of the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County, a private/public partnership.

“If it weren’t for them, I probably would have never gotten started. They put in one of the initial proposals for us for a planning study when we were just a virtual company.”

But Painter also learned a lot about overcoming obstacles as a kid. He grew up the youngest of eight children; his dad, a steel worker, died before Painter was even one year old. His mom raised the family by herself.

As the baby of the family, “I was spoiled by my mom and tormented by my brothers,” he recalls fondly.

In addition to torment, one of his older brothers also inspired him to become an engineer.

“He went to Penn State extension campus, and he was in the library every night until 11 o’clock, and he got straight A’s. I said, ‘Well, that’s what you’ve got to do.’ And if he could do it, I could do it.”

Today he’s trés contente that he did. 

“I think we’re entering a golden age of magnets and materials here in Tallahassee,” he said. “I’d encourage any young people to consider getting into the engineering field, as an opportunity to contribute not only to their own lives but to the world in general.”