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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Is This The Key To Commercial Nuclear Fusion?

While the concept of harnessing nuclear fusion, the process which powers the sun, for use here on Earth has long been the “Holy Grail” of energy science, it has long been too good to be true. Nuclear fusion has the potential to solve some of the world’s greatest crises: it’s several times more powerful than nuclear fission, it can be produced using only hydrogen or lithium, which means that it creates none of the hazardous radioactive waste that makes nuclear fission so infamously problematic, and it produces absolutely zero carbon emissions. 

But there is one problem. Despite the many, many teams of scientists that have tried, no one has yet figured out how to make nuclear fusion reproducible on a commercial scale. This has been so difficult to achieve because it’s no easy feat to artificially recreate the extreme conditions like those found in the core of the sun, where nuclear fusion occurs naturally. As explained by the United States Department of Energy, “fusion reactions are being studied by scientists, but are difficult to sustain for long periods of time because of the tremendous amount of pressure and temperature needed to join the nuclei together.”

Over the past year, however, it has become easier and easier to believe that commercialized nuclear fusion will not remain out of reach for much longer. First, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a multinational project based in Southern France, announced in July that their team is now a mere 6.5 years away from achieving “First Plasma.” Now, just this week, researchers have announced another breakthrough bringing us closer to making commercial fusion a reality.

The secret? Artificial Intelligence. An article from the supercomputing facility Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported on Wednesday that “a team of researchers has leveraged supercomputer-powered AI in an effort to address one of the key problems with scaling up fusion energy.” That key problem is the tricky issue of managing plasma. 

Currently, in the majority of nuclear fusion research, plasma is created and maintained inside of a device called a tokamak (defined by Oak Ridge National Laboratory as “magnetic, donut-shaped fusion devices that hold fusion reactions in place so the plasma doesn’t lose its heat or interact with the surrounding materials”) but even the most cutting-edge versions of these devices still have a lot of limitations. “Instabilities in this process (‘disruptions’) allow plasma to escape, reach the walls of the tokamak, stop the reaction and potentially cause irreparable damage to the reactor itself. The problem is also scaling up: the larger the fusion reactor, the lower the surface area, increasing the risk of severe damage from a disruption.” This means that even the most promising tokamak projects, like the massive one underway at ITER, are not out of the R&D woods yet--far from it. Related: The First Country To Abandon IMO 2020

One team of researchers, however, says that they have found a solution for ITER’s challenges through in implementation of AI and supercomputing. The United States Department of Energy and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Bill Tang led a team of researchers to look into the issue, resulting in a study published in the scientific journal Nature, entitled “Predicting disruptive instabilities in controlled fusion plasmas through deep learning.” In this study, Tang says that he and his team “aim to accurately predict the potential for disruptive events before they occur, as well as understand the reasons why they happen in the first place.”

Right now, the supercomputing used in tokamak fusion experiments is simply not fast enough to detect these disruptions, which occur all but instantaneously. For Tang’s team, as summarized by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the goal was to find a way to “meet the 95 percent correct disruption prediction threshold required by the under-construction ITER Tokamak, which will be the larger fusion reactor in the world.” The team has achieved extremely promising results with the Nvidia P100 GPUs at the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s TSUBAME 3.0 supercomputer, as well as with the world’s most powerful supercomputer Summit. This has allowed Tang’s team to move forward from detection and start broaching the all-important and even more difficult task of preventing disruptions. 

“With powerful predictive capabilities, we can move from disruption prediction to control, which is the holy grail in fusion,” Tang was quoted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “It’s just like in medicine—the earlier you can diagnose a problem, the better chance you have of solving it.” 

With new breakthroughs announced in the field of fusion all the time, and such promising research currently underway, nuclear fusion feels not just like a fantastical possibility, but an inevitable eventuality. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on August 11 2019 said:
    The energy needed to make nuclear fusion reproducible on a commercial scale is so huge that it can on its own be used to augment global energy needs without resorting to nuclear fusion.

    On paper and even in laboratory nuclear fusion looks a promising solution to the world’s energy needs and environmental problems, but in reality it remains a fantasy.

    Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Lab near San Francisco have been working for years on a pellet containing a few milligrams of deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen that can be extracted from water. If the pellet is blasted with a powerful laser, it can create a reaction like the one that takes place at the centre of the sun. Harness that reaction and you can get the heat necessary to generate electricity without creating any pollution. However, even the biggest lasers in the world could not yet generate enough energy to smash nuclei together and make them stick thus achieving fusion.

    The huge expense and the state-of-the-art technology should be used to harness a much greater energy source closer to home, namely solar power which can be used extensively to generate all the electricity the world will ever need and power water desalination plants to banish drought altogether from the world.

    However for the moment, scientists warn that fusion is all just a high-tech fantasy. The reality is that fusion energy is only 40 years away, and will always be only 40 years away.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Bill Simpson on August 11 2019 said:
    Even if they can eventually make it work, which I doubt for continuous operation, the plants will likely cost so much, and require so much expensive maintenance caused by radiation damage to the inside walls, that the electricity they might produce would cost too much for civilization to afford.
    The only place where much fusion occurs is near the center of a star, and in the inside of an H-bomb for a billionth of a second as the fuel is bombarded by ultra intense x-rays produced by fission of plutonium. Good luck duplicating any of those conditions on a sustained basis inside some controllable machine.
    As far as prediction of plasma instabilities, and being able to control them, suppose they are quantum effects. They could be totally random, and thus be impossible to predict.
  • Ethan Firl on August 12 2019 said:
    Right! In another 50 years it'll only be 50 years away! "...it has become easier and easier to believe that commercialized nuclear fusion will not remain out of reach for much longer."
  • Michael De Winter on August 18 2019 said:
    The sentence
    "The problem is also scaling up: the larger the fusion reactor, the -lower- the surface area, increasing the risk of severe damage from a disruption.”
    Should probably read
    "The problem is also scaling up: the larger the fusion reactor, the -higher- the surface area, increasing the risk of severe damage from a disruption.”

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