General Atomics Business Information, Profile, and History
San Diego, California 92121
In an age of global change, there's a company dedicated to the premise that change creates opportunities ... an international company committed to improving the human condition through technology. That company is General Atomics.
History of General Atomics
General Atomics is involved in a number of high-tech ventures, including fusion research and gas-cooled nuclear reactors. The company's range of products in development includes Lynx high-resolution radars, magnetic levitation trains, and Ultra Wideband (UWB) wireless networking technology. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), maker of the famous Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is an affiliated company that was spun off in 1994.
General Atomics (GA) was established as a division of General Dynamics Corporation in mid-1955. It was the creation of General Dynamics chairman John Jay Hopkins and Frederic de Hoffmann, GA's first general manager and president. De Hoffmann was a veteran of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. GA's very first offices were in the General Dynamics facility on Hancock Street in San Diego.
The next summer some of the most eminent nuclear scientists and engineers of the day gathered at GA's next temporary headquarters, a schoolhouse on San Diego's Barnard Street. (GA would later "adopt" the school in 1994 as part of its Education Outreach program.) Their order of business was to find suitable peacetime uses for nuclear energy, and to come up with a commercial product for GA to produce.
San Diego voters approved the transfer of land to GA for permanent facilities at Torrey Pines. The John Jay Hopkins Laboratory for Pure and Applied Science was formally dedicated there on June 25, 1959, with these words from its namesake: "We are establishing here a timeless institution, a thing of the mind and spirit, devoted to man's progress." GA's staff already numbered 700, and the firm was involved with several research projects.
A prototype for a small, safe research reactor, the TRIGA, had debuted on May 3, 1958. GA developed special uranium-zirconium hydride fuel elements for the reactor, which gave it a level of "inherent safety," rather than the engineered safety of most reactors. Marketable within four years, the TRIGA would be one of GA's most enduring and successful projects. In the next 40 years, more than 65 TRIGA reactors would be built in two dozen countries around the world.
The company spent the next 20 years trying to make high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology competitive with the light water version technology that was preferred in the 1950s, reported Business Week. The latter used water to cool the reactor. GA's process used helium, reducing pollution and overheating concerns and lessening the amount of fuel needed. Helium also did not become radioactive, unlike water. GA's reactor design used a graphite core, which could tolerate an increase of several thousand degrees above its 850 degrees Celsius operating temperature without damage.
GA was developing a Maritime Gas Cooled Reactor for the Atomic Energy Commission. It was also studying controlled fusion for a group of Texas utilities. A prototype gas-cooled reactor built on the system of the Philadelphia Electric Co. went online in the late 1960s.
Project Orion was an attempt to design a 4,000-ton, long-range spacecraft powered by controlled nuclear pulses, or explosions. The project progressed to the point that a small test vehicle (dubbed "Hot Rod") powered by conventional explosives was built. However, Orion was canceled in 1965 due to political and technical challenges.
Owned by Gulf, Royal Dutch/Shell in the 1970s
Gulf Oil acquired GA in 1967. Royal Dutch/Shell became a partner in GA in 1973 with a $200 million investment. It had added another $200 million to $300 million in another two years. GA, which had been known under the name Gulf General Atomic, then Gulf Energy & Environmental Systems, became General Atomics Company in January 1974.
Construction of GA's first commercial power plant, built for the Public Service Co. of Colorado (PSCO), was completed in 1973; however, the reactor was not online for another three years, and it would experience many equipment failures until it was shut down in 1989. Other utilities committed to buy ten more reactors in the mid-1970s; however, these commitments were canceled. GA then focused on reactor technology research. In 1977, joined by 28 utilities, it formed Gas Cooled Reactor Associates (GCRA).
Founding President Frederic de Hoffmann had left GA in 1969; he went on to head the Salk Institute. GA was led during the mid-1970s by Bill Finley. Finley's 1977 Business Plan set forth new goals of profitability and diversification. Dr. Harold Agnew, formerly director of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, became president of GA in March 1979. The next month, the Three Mile Island accident dramatically affected the entire nuclear power industry. GA claimed its gas-cooled reactors were the safest in the world, and would have been capable of averting the Three Mile Island disaster. Still, the new regulatory environment raised the cost of operating any type of nuclear plant.
Agnew set GA on a course of diversification. It used its concrete structure expertise to build offshore oil tanks. The company also looked abroad, participating in a joint U.S.-Japan fusion power development project called Doublet III.
From December 1975 to June 1984, GA was embroiled in litigation by Westinghouse Electric Corp. and United Nuclear Corp. (UNC), alleging an international price-fixing conspiracy. Twenty-eight other companies were also charged in lawsuits in Illinois and New Mexico. GA ended up settling claims against it for $200 million.
Changing Hands in the 1980s
GA had revenues of $115 million in 1980, most ($85 million) of it from government nuclear-energy research contracts. The company employed about 2,200 people, down 600 from its mid-1970s peak.
Gulf Oil bought out its 50-50 partner, Royal Dutch/Shell Group's Scallop Nuclear Inc., effective January 1, 1982. Gulf became full owner of General Atomics, while Scallop received a large piece of land next to GA's San Diego headquarters. General Atomics then became known as GA Technologies Inc. Chevron became GA's owner after its merger with Gulf Oil in mid-1984.
A systems and services group was started in 1982 as GA sought to become less dependent on government funding, specifically the Department of Energy. Among the offerings were toxic waste disposal. GA was also involved in research of particle beam weapons and a space-based nuclear reactor for the Department of Defense. Revenues reached $154.5 million in 1985.
GA joined with the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) to launch the San Diego Supercomputer Center in 1985. The center received most of its funding from the National Science Foundation, and performed research on earthquakes, the global climate, and other analytical and mathematical problems.
Two Denver-area investors, Neal and Linden Blue, acquired GA from Chevron Corporation for more than $50 million in 1986. The company was then known as GA Technologies. After the buy, Dr. Kerry Dance, who had submitted an employee buyout bid, left the company as president, a position he had held since January 1985 following the retirement of Dr. Harold Agnew. Neil Blue became CEO and board chairman, while Linden Blue became vice-chairman overseeing reactor programs.
Taking Wing in the 1990s
GA formed a 50-50 radioactive cleanup joint venture with Indiana-based hazardous waste firm Canonie Environmental Services Corp. in 1990. Nuclear Remediation Technologies Corp. was started with about six employees and $3 million in start-up capital. In the fall of 1989, the Department of Energy had identified ten military nuclear-weapon sites for remediation over the next three decades.
In 1991, GA acquired Chevron Corp.'s North American uranium assets. These holdings included the largest known uranium deposit in the United States, at Mount Taylor, New Mexico.
The break-up of the Soviet Union allowed for closer cooperation between GA and Russian nuclear researchers. In 1993, the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy teamed with GA in designing a new prototype gas-cooled reactor. The aim was to generate commercial sales of the reactors around the world.
Former Admiral Thomas P. Cassidy and six engineers formed General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) as an affiliated company of GA in 1992. The unit's mission was to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Drones in the past had been limited by range restrictions and the need to process film from their cameras. GA-ASI set out to develop an unmanned craft that could be controlled from greater distances, while transmitting battlefield pictures in real time.
The company's first craft was called the "Gnat." It could remain airborne for more than 40 hours. The Gnat was used in combat, but another UAV would become better known to military planners. First flown in 1994, the Predator was used over the skies of Bosnia during the NATO intervention there in the late 1990s. After the conflict, GA-ASI signed deals with several European companies to meet local requirements for UAVs. GA-ASI was spun off as an independent entity in 1994. The Predator's real-time battlefield coverage capabilities made headlines over the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, 2001.
In the mid-1990s, GA had about 1,300 employees in San Diego. GA was involved in nuclear space power systems, weapons destruction, and superconducting magnets in addition to nuclear reactors and fusion. The company had formed a short-lived bioscience division in 1991 that was closed four years later.
Promising Research: Late 1990s to Early 2000s
GA was involved in a number of unique research projects in the late 1990s and beyond. One of them was a ship using a superconducting magnet to detonate mines at sea. It was also helping market a Russian design for high-temperature batteries used to power sensors on oil rigs. In December 1999, a GA-led team was one of two to win a contract to design an electromagnetic aircraft launcher for Navy carriers. GA began selling its new high-resolution LYNX radar system to the Army in 2000.
An O-shaped magnetic field keeps plasma in place inside a chamber 15 feet in diameter, called a tokamak. The plasma is spun from 10 to 100 miles per second, creating pressure, while the temperature reaches millions of degrees. The reactions, which last only a few seconds, combine light elements such as hydrogen (deuterium, tritium) or lithium, to produce heavy elements and energy. However, scientists had been unable to produce a fusion reaction that yielded more energy than the large amount needed to sustain them in a lab.
Another GA team invented the equivalent of "lightning in a bottle." Its Rotating Tube Discharge kept a long column of plasma in place inside a spinning tube. A number of industrial applications were envisioned.
GA was also leading several Pennsylvania-based agencies in the Urban Maglev consortium to develop a rail system based on magnetic levitation. The research was sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration. In one test in early 2002, GA engineers levitated a ton of weight using a single magnet module, which could be combined with others to suspend an entire 40,000-pound train.
In 2003, GA and its affiliates were involved in a wide range of other projects at the leading edge of technology, including flexible flat panel displays (Organic Light Emitting Diodes). The Energy Products division had won a contract to produce 2,500 capacitors for Sandia National Laboratories. GA entered a joint venture with Royal Philips Electronics to develop chipsets using GA's Ultra-Wideband (UWB) wireless networking technology. The Energy Products Division had been formed in 2000 from business lines acquired from San Diego's Maxwell Technologies; it was subsequently merged with GA's Sorrento Electronics unit, a supplier of products for the petroleum and nuclear power industries.
Principal Operating Units: Advanced Technologies Group; Energy Group; Lynx Systems Group.
Principal Competitors: Northrop Grumman Corporation.
- Key Dates:
- 1955: General Atomics (GA) is formed as a unit of General Dynamics.
- 1958: TRIGA research reactor prototype is produced.
- 1959: John Jay Hopkins Laboratory is dedicated at Torrey Pines.
- 1967: Gulf Oil acquires GA.
- 1974: Royal Dutch/Shell becomes equal partner in GA with Gulf.
- 1982: Gulf Oil buys Royal Dutch/Shell's holding in GA.
- 1986: Denver investors Neal and Linden Blue acquire GA.
- 1992: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) is formed.
- 1994: Predator UAV makes its first flight; GA-ASI is spun off.
- 2002: Predator makes headlines during hunt for Taliban in Afghanistan.
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