Emerging Technologies Critical to the Success of Future Fusion Power

Posted by in Science & Technology

Nuclear fusion is a reaction between two or more nuclei of atoms to fuse and form different atomic nuclei. This reaction results in the release of energy, this is the phenomenon that nature uses in sun to produce its energy. Since the last century, this nuclear fusion-based nuclear energy is under research and it is expected that it will be the primary source of energy in the near future, and it will be able to end the energy crisis in the world.

To produce fusion energy this reaction is carried out in laboratories, where the nuclear fusion reactor involves heating it at high temperatures to produce nuclear energy. The magnetic plasma of electrons and ions that is involved in this process is so heated that no physical material can withstand this high temperature. One of the problems that need to be addressed is to find a way to sustain the fusion reaction in a way that is economical, reliable, safe, and environment friendly. Research is underway on different emerging technologies that can benefit this nuclear energy industry and to study the reasons why the growth in this industry is not as it was expected. Scientists are continuously trying to develop clean and limitless energy using nuclear fusion and to control the hazards that are closely related to this nuclear fusion process in reactors. When the plasma in the fusion experiment becomes unstable it can escape confinement and touch the wall of the machine causing severe damage and sometimes even melting the components. Proper measures are required that predict the disruptions so that safety measures required to mitigate these effects can be built. This is one of the biggest obstacles in achieving commercial energy production.

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Industry 3.0 was about mass production, industry 4.0 brought mass customization and industry 5.0 will be using the latest technologies to not only customize but personalizing the production process. Industry 5.0 combines man and machine and find ways to work together to improve efficiency. Industry 5.0 aims to provide that vision and fusion energy will likely benefit from harmonizing and maximizing human-machine interaction, whether in optimizing test shots for a prototype fusion reactor or human-robot service and maintenance systems for reactor construction and cores as well as from a common human vision of what fusion energy can offer industry and society, including facilitating humanity’s expansion into space.

Need for R&D for Nuclear Energy

Dedicated research efforts are necessary to further technological innovation which can bring numerous benefits to society. There is a strong need to build better solutions for tomorrow. Programs to carry research and development for nuclear energy are essential to make this industry safe and efficient and to work on new advanced and innovative nuclear systems for the future. The research and development in the nuclear sector should be prioritized, else the world won’t be able to meet the needs of the future. It demands to ensure the availability of sufficient resources and adequate expertise for R&D. The success of this field also depends on training the scientists, engineers, and management about the benefits of integrating emerging technologies in the nuclear sector, and the necessity of having experience and understanding of R&D work across a wide range of disciplines. The establishment of a training scheme will require funds, professionals, and experimental facilities.

The loss of R&D can have serious implications for the future of nuclear energy. It can lead to severe energy shortages in the future. The growing pollution also demands to invest in the nuclear energy sector because of fossil fuel burning and its impact on the environment. Nuclear energy has the potential to play a vital role in the future so it requires considerable R&D efforts to ensure the emergence of innovative nuclear energy systems. It is crucial to identify R&D needs and to ensure adequate expertise. To maximize the efficiency of R&D increased international cooperation is required. Encouraging and facilitating such international co-operation is paramount to achieve synergies, advancing fusion energy, and knowledge.

Different fusion companies in the private sector are investing in using cutting-edge technologies in reactor designs and reactions. Some of those innovative techniques are explained here with their use in nuclear fusion energy.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence is considered as an answer to many problems that the world has been facing for a long time and it has proved to be extremely helpful in almost every field. By the 1950s the plasma physicist has settled on using a doughnut-shaped ring for the nuclear reaction but so far they haven’t managed to generate useful energy. Now after the inclusion of AI the research and development in this area are accelerating. It is expected that in the future all the nuclear power plants will be AI-enabled. AI will help scientists to make experiments leading to meaningful results. It will prove to be an important step forward towards technological advancements in the nuclear energy industry. Research is being carried out on fusion technology for efficient power generation and AI will help in detecting and predicting the instabilities in the plasma. Fusion research is moving towards a grand goal as researchers are focused on improving the ratio of energy input to output.

Researchers and scientists are optimistic that AI could generate a prediction of disruption with very high accuracy and eventually they will be able to control the nuclear process. Advances in AI have given hope and advances are made. Researchers have applied the Neural Network AI techniques and predicted the disruption with 90 percent accuracy in a timescale of milliseconds. In practical implementation, if the disruptions are predicted in such a short period the preventive measures can be taken on time. Similar systems will be required for autonomous control of reactors and keep the system stable leading towards safety and stability. Methods from Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will enable the realization of fusion energy by maximizing the amount of usefulness. Machine learning needs to be trained and learn, the neural network-based system mentioned above needs extensive data of past experiments and it searches for patterns in data that lead towards disruptions. Deep learning algorithms learn from complex data and make them an ideal candidate for disruption prediction. The next step after predicting the disruptions is to control the disruptions but this step will be more challenging than the previous one. The AI-based techniques can be used here and techniques where the plasma is kept away from meeting such conditions where it gets into an unstable state, will avoid the disruptions and keep the system stable.

The subfield of AI, machine learning, derives relationships from data, which allows machines to solve more complex problems and deal with uncertainty. In nuclear power plants, there are a wide variety of tasks that have been studied using learning-based methods, particularly the development of neural network structures for parameters prediction and classification using sensor data to perform monitoring, diagnosis, prognosis, controls, planning, and other tasks that can benefit from pattern recognition. Degradation, aging, and transients can happen over a short or long period of time; thus, it is feasible to extract a unique set of patterns or fingerprints for the operators to perform a root cause analysis in a timely manner. The primary goal of such applications is to provide a quick and accurate insight such that additional time can help derive the optimal procedure/strategy to be implemented to correct the situation via artificial anticipators or fast first estimation tools, therefore increasing the safety of the plant and components.

Research should be carried out on these sophisticated AI methods to extract different patterns from the available data and analyze them to provide accurate information about the issues that essentially require monitoring. Reinforcement learning is a method for finding optimal strategies for an environment by exploring many possible scenarios and assigning credit to different moves based on performance. AI-based Computational methods will not only discover patterns and unusual events in data but have enough domain knowledge built in that they can themselves take decisions.

There are a number of challenges in creating these systems, noise in the data is one, which makes it difficult to train a machine learning classifier. Predictive simulations all have some amount of uncertainty, which are features, or characteristics that we don’t know exactly, examples could include the material properties of manufactured components, such as thickness, emissivity (how much heat surfaces emit), or some other physical phenomena. It’s our responsibility to understand what those uncertainties are, which is typically a very arduous process. The process takes time because it typically requires hundreds to thousands of repeated analyses, and in some cases, several high-fidelity simulations, which carry a high computational burden. There is a need to explore ways to create and use machine learning models to make this analysis more efficient and reduce the total time required to quantify uncertainty and optimize the design.

Robotics and Remote Handling

Technological improvements have made life easy in all aspects of life. One of the major advancements is robots, which have gained immense popularity. The robotic technology is deployed in many sectors and commercial fields and resulted in the overall enhancement of the processes. Robotic technology can be used in the nuclear energy sector for multiple roles. The nuclear cleanup or maintenance of the reactors are two aspects where it can benefit the overall safety of the system. Another example can be the robotic systems providing information about unknown areas or where the reachability is difficult. The primary incentives for developing remotely-controlled robots in the nuclear industry came from the need to minimize the exposure of workers to radiation and improve overall productivity.

Remote handling and robotics are some of the enabling technologies to improve performance and help in the advancement of maintenance techniques required. Maintenance and handling of tools for assembling and welding different parts or any repairing are carried out remotely.  Part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) is conducting R&D and commercial activities in the field of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS). It also supports companies in developing their autonomous systems. The facility is a key center for implementing the Government’s Robotics & Autonomous Systems strategy, which aims to equip the UK to compete in this emerging global industry.

The robotics and remote handling in nuclear reactors are very useful for mission-critical applications in power plants. Other uses can be safety procedures in hazardous environments like nuclear decommissioning and remote inspection. Robots that can withstand extreme environments are under production for such applications, robots that are robust enough to work in the middle of a fusion reactor are required. Based in Sunderland in the UK, Assystem Group aims to build robotic equipment that can safely remove irradiated components and impurities such as dust from inside a tokamak, the chamber in which fusion reactions take place, and an environment of intense levels of heat and radiation. Reduced radiation exposure, greater reliability, and cost savings are all potential benefits of the application of remote technologies to the handling of spent nuclear fuel. Remote equipment and technologies are used to some extent in all facilities handling fuel and high-level wastes whether they are for interim storage, processing/repacking, reprocessing, or disposal.

The inside of a fusion device is very delicate and it is difficult for humans to do repairs. Any damage caused can make a loss of both money and experimental time. Therefore, remote-controlled robots can be used in such situations. In remote handling, operators control robotic arms to carry out maintenance tasks inside areas of the tokamak that are difficult or impossible for humans to reach. Another robotic technology of drones can be used for monitoring the reactors from outside and providing the researchers with images for inspection. A power plant may have spaces where entry is restricted, in those spaces drones can be used to carry inspections and carry maintenance tools. Drones can provide the best possible visuals to know about the environmental conditions and any other monitoring. If drones and robots can work together inside a fusion device, we might well see a team of autonomous drone-robot inspectors and maintenance workers. The industry is developing machines able to withstand large levels of heat and radiation to remove impurities from the plasma and replace components. The companies’ spokespeople assure their robotic equipment will be able to safely remove irradiated components and impurities such as dust from the heart of the machine, which scientists believe could potentially provide an unlimited source of energy.

The handling of highly radioactive materials, the deployment of tools and sensors, and the dismantling of components built from many different materials can be a long, labor-intensive process that has the potential for high exposure rates, heat stress, and injury to personnel. Mobile robotics systems provide solutions to these hazards. Such remote handling systems are required to perform tasks within budget and on schedule.

Work in hazardous environments in the nuclear industry is dependent on robotics and remote handling. Currently, autonomous robots are unable to function efficiently in many dynamic or variable environments, which require completely human either control or teleoperator solutions. Robotic solutions are often found in environments with low human accessibility owing to physical constraints or danger. However, until significant progress is made with autonomous systems, close human supervision of robotic systems will continue where environmental variability is high.

There are cases where industries have suffered negative experience, cases they have failed to deliver the promised benefits. It is a challenge to the robotics community to demonstrate that advances in robotic technology can enable safe and economic nuclear decommissioning. It is important that these robots have conscious reasoning mechanisms such as learning with subconscious sensing mechanisms. Experts believe that it is better to design custom robots performing specific tasks. In case nuclear robots leak hydraulic fluid they must send an alarm before they fail so that they can be recovered quickly.

Robots offer considerable opportunities for improved productivity and significantly reduced human risk. The nuclear industry has a vast array of highly complex and diverse challenges that span the entire industry: decommissioning and waste management. The major hazards associated with the nuclear industry include radiation; storage media (for example water, air, vacuum); lack of utilities (such as lighting, power, or communications); restricted access; unstructured environments.

Digital Twin

When designing the next generation of nuclear power plants, the safest way to gauge new tools and technology is to test them on digital models first. Public and private organizations use digital twins to explore novel technologies and ways to lower costs or refine designs before breaking ground. A digital twin is a digital model of a process that helps optimize or predict performance, they are becoming more widespread in nuclear plants to help maintain and maximize operations. Leading systems and engineering technology experts Frazer-Nash Consultancy, based in the UK and Australia, are at the forefront of digital twin technology across multiple sectors, ranging from Formula 1 motor racing to nuclear.

A digital twin is an approximation of something that is real and can be used to predict events that are difficult to detect. The digital twin is one of the most promising technologies in the new technical revolution. It is a link between physical reality and cyberspace. Currently, the awareness and acceptance of this technology are growing both by research institutes and by industry, which is reflected in its implementation in various industries. Digital twins are used by such large companies as General Electric and Tesla. Digital Twin (DT) of a Nuclear Power Plant unit can be used for solving various tasks at all stages of the unit’s life cycle – for example, testing and improving control algorithms, diagnosing the state of technological equipment, testing programs of load following modes, etc. When there are complex decisions to make or a trade-off between two or more options, the digital twin provides a virtual area that enables you to explore options quickly, optimize outcomes and arrive at a balanced compromise. It allows the complex interaction of people, plants, processes, and environment to be modeled and interventions to be implemented. This empowers an organization to learn and store knowledge about how its assets behave, to improve operational strategies, and reduce risk. In 2017, the GE Chief Technology Officer Sham Chotai outlined one of the cost benefits of the emerging digital twin technology. “For instance, a compressor might fail. In the case of a nuclear plant, that can cause a scram and it can cost millions of dollars to bring a plant back online,” he said. “Using the concept of the digital twin combined with deep machine learning we are able to predict 30 to 60 days ahead that a compressor will fail.”

While many plants have already integrated digital twin technology, many more are expected to take it up in the next five years, with older plants also able to embrace the technology. First, it could reduce maintenance costs for nuclear power plants by accurately predicting when components need replacing, rather than relying on overly cautious maintenance schedules. Secondly, advanced nuclear power plants could be designed so they would be less expensive to build and run. And the third aim is to enable nuclear power to ramp up and down according to demand, becoming a better complement to wind and solar energy. Having a virtual reactor that is a near-exact replica of a real reactor is useful for all these purposes. The digital twin reactors will be based on physics models running on the reactor design, paired with real-time data coming from the sensors on the reactors and supervised by AI.

During the design and implementation phases of a Digital Twin, different criticalities must be taken into consideration concerning the need for deterministic transactions, a large number of pervasive devices, and standardization issues. Digital Twin solutions have been developed to create a consistent improvement in efficiency, minimize failure rates, shorten development cycles, and open up new business opportunities. The applications of Digital Twin tools focused on improving the safety of process plant operators and maintainers are few, even if it is a resilience engineering challenge for research. The development of a reference model in this sector has become necessary and strategic in order to increase the safety levels of the operators involved in the maintenance phases. 

The second challenge is to propose novel architectures, technologies, and methodologies to optimize the level of efficiency and security in a context where every step towards digitization exposes the manufacturing process to widening cyber-threats.

A digital framework must incorporate large quantities of both design and power plant data; for this to be effective, a new generation of sensors/technologies will need to be developed which are capable of automatic model updates from real-time operational measurements. These developments will need to include both technologies specific to fusion reactors, such as monitoring of power output via neutron yields and of surface morphology of plasma-facing components, e.g. breeder blankets, but also more conventional structural health monitoring during operations and non-destructive evaluation during manufacture and maintenance, for instance, ultrasound examination of welds and hydrostatic heat sinks.

5G, the Fifth-generation Wireless Technology

Wireless technologies have been found to be relatively easy to install as e.g. the amount of cabling and needed cabling penetrations are much lower than in conventional technologies. It is also seen that wireless technology can reduce labor costs and optimize maintenance with effective digital tools and resources for workers. The fifth-generation wireless technology can help enhance and improve the efficiency and reliability of the power and energy sector. The potential applications of 5G are far beyond that of its predecessors. South Korean telecommunications provider SK Telecom is working with Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power to develop power plant management solutions using 5G that take advantage of the new standard’s key IoT features.

This inclusion of 5G will boost efficiency and enhance security. One of the distinguishing features of 5G is its low latency communication. It can be helpful in plant management solutions as those operations are very sensitive and require reliable and seamless connectivity. The minimal delay ion-conducting different operations will enable great remote management that we just discussed in the previous section and how important it can be for maintenance and monitoring applications.

Shifting the control of systems like power plant management from local sites to the cloud or other remote locations can offer operators a range of critical advantages, like more powerful analytics or automation capabilities.

IoT and Edge Computing

In power plant operations there are many areas that can benefit from the Internet of Things (IoT) technology and leading to maximizing efficiency and improving performance. The nuclear power plants require constant monitoring and any failure if detected must be answered as quickly as possible. The IoT can provide the data which will form the basis of monitoring and failure detection which is exploited for safety and security purposes. This data collected by IoT technology can increase the productivity of the nuclear power plant. More refined knowledge of the system should eventually enable a prediction of the performance and assets of a plant. The maintenance of a fusion reactor can be improved by integrating IoT with the nuclear sector. IoT based maintenance process will help in remote handling as the interaction of physical objects with the machines can help the operators.

IoT will generate more useful data as more assets are connected; the cloud-platform framework is at risk of serious bandwidth problems as well as cybersecurity concerns. Edge can solve this challenge by reducing the processing speed and security concerns as the computation will be brought close to the edge of devices. This is done by executing computing tasks closer to the IoT devices, that is, directly in the network Edge. The management, storage, data analysis, as well as decision making, and it is carried out in multiple Edge Nodes of the IoT network instead of being managed centrally in the Cloud, improving the response time, security, and QoS (Quality of Service) of the services executed in the edge

Edge computing can enhance production capabilities, improve processes, extend asset life, and create opportunities for the deployment of additional capabilities. Power plants have limited connectivity due to cyber-security issues, which edge computing can address by removing the need to connect to the web, enabling machine performance optimization, proactive maintenance, and operational intelligence. The implementation of technological solutions based on Edge computing and IoT operating environments has facilitated the development of intelligent services and applications. This will contribute significantly to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the general tasks and processes. Moreover, energy consumption will be reduced significantly.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

The advent of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies opens up many opportunities in different industries. One important feature of VR is to display the desired view that is impossible in the real world scenario or available resources. In relation to our topic, VR technology can be used to view the detailed process of nuclear fusion with the help of computer graphics which will help to learn and educate in a more effective and safe way. AR-enabled headsets can project the holograms onto the field of view of a user, this involves sensors and many communication interfaces. Voice commands, gestures recognition, and movement can control the AR. This AR technology can help in the planning, construction, and maintenance of nuclear power plants. It forms a connection between the physical and the real world. It can help navigate the workers in the plants while displaying important information about the spaces that are dangerous or restricted for them. It can provide information about the apparatus or any physical object in the plant that needs to avoid physical touch and will help increase the safety of the workers. It is also helpful as it can be used to provide feedback by text-based updates, holograms, audios, and videos. 

Augmented reality technology can help in the indoor localization of objects and a means of surveillance of industrial facilities. The AR datasets can be used to collect data and that data can be fed to databases for machine learning algorithms that can further improve the overall performance. VR technology can be also used in remote handling operations. Remote handling has been already discussed, the VR technology can contribute to the control and monitoring of plants. The operators are far from the physical location and uninterrupted detailed visual feedback is provided to the operator.

Automation

Nuclear power plants experience significant challenges, have a large burden to minimize the cost, and sustain safety. Automation technologies can help overcome these challenges and can help in the reduction of operational and maintenance costs. Automation solutions reduce labor activities, improve capacity, and ensure the safety of workers. Automation can provide assistance in tasks like administrative, coordination, physical, and even analytical. Administrative tasks that do not include any cognitive operations and human intelligence like work-package archiving, review of checklist for safety, or assignment of resources that do not require balancing priorities. Physical tasks such as procedure execution, tag outs hanging, or equipment collection. Automation solutions can assist a human to perform these tasks in some cases or fully replace the human element in others.

Automation can help in location identification of resources in the plan and identification of objects and tools or identify particular pieces of materials and spatial locations. It can help in improved decision making by providing key information about the work process. Automation technologies enhance the quality, speed, and safety of the activity they are applied to. These technologies include human-factors technologies to reduce human error. These technologies have benefits beyond simply cutting costs because it will also allow for the reduction of the cognitive load and efficiency gains.

Exploitation Strategy for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

There is a need for a clear plan for progress by using the readily available knowledge gained from previous research and experiments conducted in nuclear fusion. The lessons learned from the previous mistakes will be beneficial for the advancement of this sector. The experience and knowledge gained from these experiments must be used for improving the research progress carried out. It would be highly beneficial to conduct a thorough study of the already carried projects and analyze the results and causes of disruptions to identify the possible reasons. An evaluation and expert analysis of these previously conducted researches should be carried out and reported that will help decide the future of the nuclear energy sector and will give rise to multiple new opportunities. A solid and comprehensive blueprint of the plans should be made to achieve the desired progress. Emerging technologies like AI, automation, robotics, and others must be explored more and research efforts are required to achieve success and milestones. Special attention is required for the integration of new technologies to nuclear fusion reactions. A special emphasis has to be put on research and development to develop a better understanding of the modern concepts and technologies in order to achieve goals. Collaborations with researchers and academics is a strong need of the time, as it will lead to fast progress in the nuclear energy sector.

Previous researches and experiments were conducted without using modern-day technology. The exploitation of emerging technologies infusion reactions has not been given much attention before. The very recent research where modern technology is adopted has shown enormous success. Investing in the research of integrating emerging technologies is critical, and strong interaction between society, industry, government, and academia is essential for it. The policymakers need to make smart decisions about which technologies are beneficial and need investment for research and development. There is a need to make a strategy encouraging interaction between the research and commercial groups in the UK with other nations to jointly collaborate on these modern technology trends and gather experts to work towards the common goal.

A method to study the patterns in the earlier experiments should be developed and academic research groups should be given the task. Technology ventures established businesses, and academic research groups collectively work to design a framework to achieve the goals and milestones. The framework should include the steps that this research and development process will have from early scientific and technological research to commercially successful applications and industry activity. The emerging technologies that are integrated into nuclear fusion experiments mainly fall in the early step of scientific and technological research. This research and development phase should work on the feasibility and should be concerned with improving reliability and performance. From the analysis of historical data, decision-makers must find a way to navigate to the unknown factors and uncertainties hindering the way to progress. The basic steps of this process can be presented as:

  • to clarify the innovation opportunities,
  • define steps towards achieving that innovation opportunity and,
  • to identify the barriers in which causes resistance in achieving the innovation goals.

These steps can facilitate the decision making progress and map the exploitation paths for the technology. Multiple industrial and research partnerships between the UK and international R&D research initiatives and programs with the aim of developing fusion as a future power source are essential.

Finally, concerns about fossil fuel consumption increase daily because of the limited nature of the reserves and their impact on the environment so it is crucial to increase awareness about the energy crisis. Fusion energy will be world-changing but to create a better future, energy crisis education must be quickly and efficiently spread to current and future generations. Social awareness about the energy crisis needs to be spread as people should know the importance of new technologies that can overcome this energy crisis.

Conclusion

The potential use of emerging technologies like AI/ML, robotics, remote handling, 5G, and AR/VR are exploited in the nuclear fusion reactions in the nuclear energy sector. There are a number of reasons that explain the relevance of applying new technologies in the nuclear sector. It makes the carrying out of many functions easier such as monitoring, maintenance, and repair. These technologies make operations more effective with much reliability, transparency, and protection.

The nuclear industry is entering into a new era, so reliability, transparency, and protection appear as fundamental factors to be addressed. Moreover, many other sectors are integrating these new emerging technologies in their operations and improving their overall efficiency. The research in nuclear fusion has not advanced much previously but now with the inclusion of more sophisticated research will speed up the research and development.