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What is Fusion Energy? And why it needs AI to become commercial electricity

Why fusion energy needs AI to reach the goal of commercial electricity faster, explained by computer scientist, Lorenzo Zanisi.

UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Lorenzo Zanisi, 29, is one of the first of a new wave of computer scientists working on artificial intelligence technologies for fusion in the UK. After recently receiving an award from the Turing Institute, here he explains why, if our world needs fusion energy, fusion energy needs AI to reach the goal of commercial electricity faster…

Fusion promises to be an environmentally responsible part of the world’s future energy supply. It is described as the ultimate energy source, based on the same processes that power the sun and stars.

But it is also one of the greatest scientific and engineering challenges of our time.

‘We know fusion works and have proved the concept on present-day machines, like the record-breaking Joint European Torus (JET) here in Culham, Oxford.

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‘At UKAEA, we have a clear roadmap to scale-up to powerplants and produce commercial electricity. This is a crucial moment on that journey.

‘It’s obvious we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion energy offers huge potential. As part of a ‘low carbon energy mix’, it could help sustain ‘net zero’ in the second half of the century and beyond.

‘It is also clear that data science and artificial intelligence are key factors to help accelerate our progress. AI methodologies and supercomputing power are improving all the time. New learning algorithms are solving more complex problems that would previously have taken months or years. Ultimately, our work will save time and money, as it has in many other industries.

‘This is an emerging and very promising field. For example, AI is already revolutionising life sciences and healthcare, enabling a faster discovery of new drugs, spotting patterns in complex genomics data, providing predictions for protein folding and helping towards the automation of diagnosis from X-ray and CT scans. For me, there is an equally exciting opportunity for AI to revolutionise fusion, to achieve it faster.

‘That is why I am here. This is the future of our planet, and I am passionate about our mission to deliver fusion energy. To change the world.

‘Given its ability to handle complexity, AI is the perfect answer to make fast and accurate predictions of future plasma states during experiments, to enable the planning of machine operations and even design plasma scenarios in newly-designed machines. All this feeds into the idea of having a ‘digital twin’, to shape the designs of future powerplants like STEP, the UK’s prototype fusion plant which is set to put power on the grid in the 2040s.

 

‘Everyone in the AI community is on board with the challenges of improving healthcare and life sciences. Can we do the same for fusion?

Screenshot 2022 10 03 at 20.02.41
UKAEA computer scientist Lorenzo Zanisi

‘We are openly collaborating with the best in the AI community, but we need more of the top talent to approach this challenge from all angles. To break down barriers and really make it count. The UK is at the forefront of both AI and fusion research – it’s the perfect place to make this happen. I view this as a one-in-a-lifetime chance for those wishing to specialise to really make a difference.

‘Things are moving fast. The Alan Turing Institute has recently awarded me with a Postdoctoral Enrichment Award, that I will use to promote the application of AI to fusion in the wider community.

‘My plan now is to reach out to top academic institutions – targeting maths, physics, computer science and engineering students; researchers at all career levels at all the leading AI institutions.

‘At UKAEA, we are working with the greatest minds in science, engineering, and technology to achieve our mission to lead the delivery of sustainable fusion energy. We are all working together to solve the world’s energy crisis. It is our time to make the change.

‘What could be more important than that?’

What is fusion energy?

Based on the same process that powers our sun and the stars, fusion has long been considered the ultimate energy source:

  • When a mix of two forms of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) are heated to extreme temperatures (10 times hotter than the core of the sun) they fuse together to create helium and release vast amounts of energy in the form of heat.
  • This superheated material forms a plasma, the fourth state of matter found in lightning and neon signs. Plasma has incredibly complex, but fascinating, physics akin to weather systems, and predicting its behaviour is just as difficult.
  • There is more than one way of achieving fusion. At UKAEA, we hold this hot plasma using strong magnets in a doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.
  • The energy created from fusion can generate electricity similar to existing power stations.

•  Site of UK’s first fusion energy plant selected in Nottinghamshire

•  Billions of pounds and thousands of jobs for Nottinghamshire after Fusion announcement

• West Burton named as site for UK’s first fusion energy power plant

• World’s first nuclear fusion energy plant will be in Nottinghamshire


 

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