AI Can Control SuperHeated Plasma Inside a Fusion Reactor

DeepMind’s streak of applying its world-class AI to hard science problems continues. In collaboration with the Swiss Plasma Center at EPFL—a university in Lausanne, Switzerland—the UK-based AI firm has now trained a deep reinforcement learning algorithm to control the superheated soup of matter inside a nuclear fusion reactor. The breakthrough, published in the journal Nature, could help physicists better understand how fusion works, and potentially speed up the arrival of an unlimited source of clean energy.

This is one of the most challenging applications of reinforcement learning to a real-world system,” says Martin Riedmiller, a researcher at DeepMind.

In nuclear fusion, the atomic nuclei of hydrogen atoms get forced together to form heavier atoms, like helium. This produces a lot of energy relative to a tiny amount of fuel, making it a very efficient source of power. It is far cleaner and safer than fossil fuels or conventional nuclear power, which is created by fissionforcing nuclei apart. It is also the process that powers stars.

Controlling nuclear fusion on Earth is hard, however. The problem is that atomic nuclei repel each other. Smashing them together inside a reactor can only be done at extremely high temperatures, often reaching hundreds of millions of degreeshotter than the center of the sun. At these temperatures, matter is neither solid, liquid, nor gas. It enters a fourth state, known as plasma: a roiling, superheated soup of particles.

The task is to hold the plasma inside a reactor together long enough to extract energy from it. Inside stars, plasma is held together by gravity. On Earth, researchers use a variety of tricks, including lasers and magnets. In a magnet-based reactor, known as a tokamak, the plasma is trapped inside an electromagnetic cage, forcing it to hold its shape and stopping it from touching the reactor walls, which would cool the plasma and damage the reactor. Controlling the plasma requires constant monitoring and manipulation of the magnetic field. The team trained its reinforcement-learning algorithm to do this inside a simulation. Once it had learned how to control—and change—the shape of the plasma inside a virtual reactor, the researchers gave it control of the magnets in the Variable Configuration Tokamak (TCV), an experimental reactor in Lausanne. They found that the AI was able to control the real reactor without any additional fine-tuning. In total, the AI controlled the plasma for only two seconds—but this is as long as the TCV reactor can run before getting too hot.

Source: https://www.technologyreview.com/

China’s ‘Artificial Sun’ Just Broke a Major World Record For Plasma Fusion

Just seven months after it announced a milestone record for plasma fusion, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has absolutely smashed it. Their ‘artificial Sun tokomak reactor has maintained a roiling loop of plasma superheated to 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) for a gobsmacking 1,056 seconds, the Institute of Plasma Physics reports. This also beats the previous record for plasma confinement of 390 seconds, set by the Tore Supra tokamak in France in 2003.

This breakthrough by the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or HT-7U) reactor is a significant advance for fusion experimentation in the pursuit of fusion energy. Succeeding in the generation of usable amounts of energy via nuclear fusion would change the world, but it’s incredibly challenging to accomplish. It involves replicating the processes that take place in the heart of a star, where high pressure and temperature squeeze atomic nuclei together so tightly that they fuse to form new elements. In the case of main sequence stars, these nuclei are hydrogen, which fuse to form helium. Since one helium nucleus is less massive than the four hydrogen nuclei that fuse to make it, the excess mass is radiated as heat and light. This generates a tremendous amount of energy – enough to power a star – and scientists are striving to harness the same process here on Earth. Obviously, there’s a significant challenge in creating the heat and pressure that we find in the heart of a star, and there are different technologies to address them.
In a tokamak, plasma is superheated, and confined in the shape of a torus, or donut, by powerful magnetic fields. But maintaining that confined, superheated plasma for longer time frames in order to cultivate longer reaction times is another problem, since superheated plasmas are chaotic and turbulent, prone to instabilities, resulting in leakage. EAST previously reported a temperature record of 160 million degrees Celsius (288 million degrees Fahrenheit), sustained for 20 seconds (the Sun’s core, for context, is 15 million degrees Celsius; the extra heat in a tokamak makes up for the lower pressure).
On 30 December 2021 – just squeaking in for its goal of achieving 1,000 seconds in 2021 – EAST broke the time record, too. Make no mistake, fusion still has a very long way to go. At the moment, far more energy goes into a fusion generator than we can get out of it; but lengthening the time of plasma confinement is a really important step forward in making self-sustaining plasma fusion a reality.

Source: https://www.sciencealert.com/

Nuclear Fusion Is Now a Question of “If”, Not “When”

A small railway town in southern England could go down in history as the place where nuclear fusion kicked off. The reaction process – which would generate vast amounts of low-carbon energy – has evaded scientists for decades, but a private company in Didcot, Oxfordshire says it’s now a question of if, not when.

Tokamak Energy is firing its nuclear reactor up to 50 million degrees celsius – almost twice the core temperature of the sun. By shooting 140,000 amps of electricity into a cloud of hydrogen gas, the team are trying to force hydrogen atoms to fuse, thereby creating helium. These fusion forces are the same ones that power the sun. While there’s no danger that Didcot could become the new centre of the solar system, the industrial estate could spark the start of a cheap, clean energy supply.

We will crack it,” CEO Chris Kelsall told the BBC on a recent trip, “the answer is out there right now with Mother Nature as we speak. What we have to do is find that key and unlock the safe to that solution. It will be found.”

Having ramped the temperature up to mind-boggling degrees, the experiment’s next step is to see if nuclear fusion can produce more energy than it uses. In case it rings alarm bells to anyone in the vicinity, nuclear fusion is very different from nuclear fission and its associated disasters. The process occurs inside a ‘tokamak’ – a device which uses a powerful magnetic field to contain the swirling cloud of hydrogen gas. This stops the superheated plasma from touching the edge of the vessel, as it would otherwise melt anything it comes into contact with. If anything goes wrong inside a fusion reactor, the device just stops – so there’s no risk of this astronomical heat being unleashed.

The plasma has to be heated to 10 times the temperature of the sun to get it going, and is capable of fusing two hydrogen nuclei into a helium nucleus. Nuclear fission, on the other hand, is the dangerous kind. This creates energy by splitting one ‘heavy’ atom (typically uranium) into two. This breakdown generates a large amount of radioactive waste in the process, which remains hazardous for years. Fusion cannot produce a runaway chain reaction, like the one that happened at Chernobyl in 1986, so no exclusion zone is needed around Milton Park, Didcot, where the reactor is based. Laura Hussey, an editor who works minutes away at a publishing office on the business park, says she is “really encouraged to hear how safe it is and really happy to see this big investment in clean energy.”

Source: https://www.euronews.com/

Historic Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough

On Aug. 8, 2021, an experiment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL’s) National Ignition Facility (NIF) made a significant step toward ignition, achieving a yield of more than 1.3 megajoules (MJ). This advancement puts researchers at the threshold of fusion ignition, an important goal of the NIF, and opens access to a new experimental regime. The experiment was enabled by focusing laser light from NIF — the size of three football fields — onto a target the size of a BB that produces a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second.

These extraordinary results from NIF advance the science that NNSA depends on to modernize our nuclear weapons and production as well as open new avenues of research,” said Jill Hruby, DOE under secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA administrator.

The central mission of NIF is to provide experimental insight and data for NNSA’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program. Experiments in pursuit of fusion ignition are an important part of this effort. They provide data in an important experimental regime that is extremely difficult to access, furthering our understanding of the fundamental processes of fusion ignition and burn and enhancing our simulation tools to support stockpile stewardship. Fusion ignition is also an important gateway to enable access to high fusion yields in the future.

This result is a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion research, opening a fundamentally new regime for exploration and the advancement of our critical national security missions. It is also a testament to the innovation, ingenuity, commitment and grit of this team and the many researchers in this field over the decades who have steadfastly pursued this goal,” said LLNL Director Kim Budil. “For me it demonstrates one of the most important roles of the national labs – our relentless commitment to tackling the biggest and most important scientific grand challenges and finding solutions where others might be dissuaded by the obstacles.”

While a full scientific interpretation of these results will occur through the peer-reviewed journal/conference process, initial analysis shows an 8X improvement over experiments conducted in spring 2021 and a 25X increase over NIF’s 2018 record yield.

Source: https://www.llnl.gov/

Nuclear Fusion One Step Closer

China broke the record by keeping the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) by achieving plasma temperature at 120 million Celsius for 101 seconds and 160 million Celsius for 20 seconds, a major step toward the test run of the fusion reactor.

The Tokamak devise is located at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It is designed to replicate the nuclear fusion process that occurs naturally in the sun and stars to provide almost infinite clean energy through controlled nuclear fusion, which is often dubbed the “artificial sun.” The achievement broke a previous record of maintaining the plasma temperature at 100 million C for 100 seconds. According to Li Miao, director of the physics department of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, it is a milestone in reaching the goal of keeping the temperature at a stable level for a long time.

The breakthrough is significant progress, and the ultimate goal should be keeping the temperature at a stable level for a long time,” Li told the Global Times, adding that the next milestone might be to maintain the stability for a week or more.

Achieving a plasma temperature above 100 million C is one of the key challenges to harness the nuclear fusion. At the end of 2020, South Korea reached 100 million C for 20 seconds. The temperature at the core of the sun is widely believed to be 15 million C, meaning that the plasma at the device’s core will be seven times hotter than that of the sun.
The energy generated from nuclear fusion is the most reliable and clean energy, Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the Global Times on Friday, adding that if the technology can be applied commercially, it will have huge economic benefits. However, Lin cautioned that as the technology is still in the experimental stage, it still need at least 30 years for the technology to come out of the lab. “It’s more like a future technology that’s critical for China’s green development push.”

Source: https://www.globaltimes.cn/

Commercial Nuclear Fusion Is Closer Than Ever

Nuclear fusion has been seen as the unattainable holy grail of clean energy for decades, but just in the last year it’s been seeming more and more within reach. As catastrophic climate change looms just over the horizon, the scientific community has galvanized to find more and better solutions to decarbonizing the global economy and replacing fossil fuels with a commercially viable, renewable, and green alternative. While much of the time and capital investment has flowed to more realistic options like solar and wind, some researchers have been dedicating their time and energy to capturing the energy of the sun here on earth–a silver bullet solution to global warming.

Conventional nuclear energy has also been hailed as a good, greenhouse gas emissions-free alternative to fossil fuels, but it has some major drawbacks, from the rare but catastrophic instance of nuclear meltdown to the industrial byproduct of nuclear waste. Nuclear fission, which is what nuclear energy plants currently use to create massive amounts of energy by splitting atoms, creates radioactive waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years, if not longer.

The beauty of nuclear fusion is that, not only does it produce energy without creating radioactive waste since it can be achieved using only hydrogen or lithium, it’s also several times more powerful than fission. If we were ever able to harness it in a commercially viable way, it would mean the end of the oil-based economy as we know it. That’s why any news about nuclear fusion is major news. And in the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of new reports emerging about commercial nuclear fusion getting closer and closer to becoming a reality.

Last summer, reps from the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an intergovernmental project headquartered in the south of France, reported that they are a mere six and a half years away from achieving first plasma inside their tokamak–in other words: nuclear fusion by just 2025. Then, just a month later in August, 2019, Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported their own nuclear fusion breakthrough, which uses novel implementation of AI and supercomputing to successfully scale up nuclear fusion experiments and manage plasma.

Then, in October, the Los Alamos National Laboratory‘s Plasma Liner Experiment (PLX) unveiled a totally new approach to nuclear fusion, using the very science-fiction combination of plasma guns, magnets, and lasers. According to the American Physical Society, “the PLX machine combines aspects of both magnetic confinement fusion schemes (e.g. tokamaks) and inertial confinement machines like the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The hybrid approach, although less technologically mature than pure magnetic or inertial confinement concepts, may offer a cheaper and less complex fusion reactor development path.” That project is projected to be up and running by the end of this year.

And now, just this week, there are new and exciting claims about yet another novel fusion technology to vie for the best path toward commercial nuclear fusion. Startup HB11, which has its impetus at Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW), has pioneered a technology that uses lasers to encourage nuclear fusion between hydrogen and boron without the use of radioactive materials to facilitate the reaction. They’re so confident about the technology that they have already applied for and received patents in the United States, Japan, and China.

The secret,” reports Popular Mechanics, “is a cutting-edge laser and, well, an element of luck.” According to managing director Warren McKenzie, as quoted by New Atlas,You could say we’re using the hydrogen as a dart, and hoping to hit a boron, and if we hit one, we can start a fusion reaction.” While this may sound a little wishy-washy, McKenzie says that the approach is actually more precise than using extreme heat to facilitate fusion because the laser is directed, whereas heat-based reactors waste huge amounts of energy heating up the entire reactor and waiting for a collision to take place.

This means that this new technology–which is now four decades in the making–could make machines like the tokamak obsolete. UNSW emeritus professor Heinrich Hora’s design “seeks to not just compete with but replace entirely the extremely high-temperature current technologies to achieve fusion. These include fussy and volatile designs like the tokamak or stellarator, which can take months to get up to functionality and still spin out of working order in a matter of microseconds.”

Last but not least, two months ago, Newsweek reported that China is about to start operation on its “artificial sun“—a nuclear fusion device that produces energy by replicating the reactions that take place at the center of the sun. If successful, the device could edge scientists closer to achieving the ultimate goal of nuclear fusion: near limitless, cheap clean energy.

Source: https://www.newsweek.com/
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https://oilprice.com/

Limitless, Cheap Clean Energy: China launches Its “Artificial Sun”

China is about to start operation on its “artificial sun“—a nuclear fusion device that produces energy by replicating the reactions that take place at the center of the sun. If successful, the device could edge scientists closer to achieving the ultimate goal of nuclear fusion: near limitless, cheap clean energy.

The device, called HL-2M Tokamak, is part of the nation’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak project, which has been running since 2006. In March, an official from the China National Nuclear Corporation announced it would complete building HL-2M by the end of the year.

The coil system was installed in June and since then, work on HL-2M has gone “smoothly,” the Xinhua News Agency reported in November.

Duan Xuru, head of the Southwestern Institute of Physics, which is part of the corporation, announced the device will become operational in 2020 at the 2019 China Fusion Energy Conference, the state news agency said. He told attendees how the new device will achieve temperatures of over 200 million degrees Celsius. That’s about 13 times hotter than the center of the sun. Previous devices developed for the artificial sun experiment reached 100 million degrees Celsius, a breakthrough that was announced in November last year.

Nuclear fusion is the reaction that powers the sun. It involves fusing two lighter atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus—a reaction that releases a huge amount of energy. On the sun, where core temperatures reach about 15 million degrees Celsius, hydrogen nuclei combine to form helium.

To recreate this on Earth, scientists must heat the fuel—types of hydrogen—to temperatures over 100 million degrees Celsius. At this point, the fuel becomes a plasma. This extremely hot plasma must be confined and one method scientists have been developing is a donut shaped device called a tokamak. This uses magnetic fields to try to stabilize the plasma so reactions can take place and energy be released. However, plasma is prone to producing bursts. If these touch the reactor wall it can damage the device.

Source: https://www.newsweek.com/