How We’re Going To Achieve Nuclear Fusion

How We’re Going To Achieve Nuclear Fusion

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A portion of this video is  brought to you by Surfshark. “Woah ….   Woah! This is massive!” “Welcome to the JET tokamak” Getting to see the JET tokamak fusion reactor  in person was an eye-opening experience,   but not in the way you might expect. What  I got to see during my time at the Culham   Science Center in the UK went well beyond  what JET is doing. There’s a whole ecosystem   that’s needed to support a future fusion  industry, and the UK government is really   pushing every aspect of that. There’s  a lot of buzz around fusion startups,  

but for any of this to work, it’s going to take  a holistic view to address the many challenges   around it. So what’s that going to take? And  … what's it like to stand inside a tokamak? I’m Matt Ferrell … welcome to Undecided. The old joke is that fusion energy  is always 30 years away, however,   it’s long running experiments like  JET that have helped to push our   understanding of fusion forward and make  major advances over the past few decades.   Just a couple of years ago it set the  record for longest sustained energy. The whole reason I make these videos is  to share my excitement and interest in   technology … in what humanity is capable  of when we put our collective minds to a   very difficult problem. I’m not a scientist, so  these videos are me sharing my learning journey   and curiosity. And my journey over to the UK,  which I’ve dubbed as my “UK nuclear tour,”  

is a part of that. This is the first in a  series of videos that I’m releasing about   that tour. You’ll get to see everything from  large government-funded research facilities,   to privately funded fusion, to a small  startup doing something with fusion that   you might not expect. So be sure to subscribe  and turn on notifications to not miss those. To kick things off in this video, I  thought it would be good to look at   the big picture when it comes to fusion.  And there’s no better place to start than  

the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and  the Culham Science Center in Oxford. This   really is a braintrust of brilliant people  trying to tackle not just fusion energy,   but everything that will be needed to  support it. I’ll be getting to the JET and   the MAST-U tokamaks in a bit, but there’s some  interesting challenges that come with fusion. Just for a quick refresher, when you’re talking  about nuclear power plants that we’re all   familiar with, it’s nuclear _fission_, no “u.”  That’s when a neutron slams into a larger atom,   which splits it into two smaller atoms.  Additional neutrons are also released in  

this process and can start a chain reaction  by slamming into more atoms to continue the   process. When an atom is split a massive  amount of energy is released in the form   of heat. In the nuclear reactors  we have today around the world,   that heat is captured to turn water into steam,  which then turns a turbine to produce electricity. Fusion is the opposite of fission, and it’s  what’s happening in our sun and all stars   in the universe. Fusion is when two atoms  slam together to form a single larger atom,   however, the single larger atom will  be ever so slightly lighter than the   two separate atoms. That extra mass is  converted into energy. For instance,  

like two hydrogen atoms fusing together to  form one helium atom. The power released in   this process is several times greater  than the power released from fission. Once the fusion reaction is established in a  reactor like a tokamak, a fuel is required to   sustain it . There’s a few different key fuels  that are options for fusion: deuterium, tritium,  

or helium-3. Both deuterium and tritium  are heavy isotopes of hydrogen. If you   look at this graph, you’ll see the output  differences between deuterium + helium-3,   deuterium + deuterium, and deuterium +  tritium. It’s why most fusion research   is eyeing deuterium + tritium because  of the larger potential energy output. One important thing to keep in mind is that some  of these reactions, like deuterium + tritium,   produce neutrons. And neutrons, unlike  some other forms of ionizing radiation,  

can actually make things they impact radioactive.  It’s a process called neutron activation. While   the radiation generated by fusion reactions is  short lived, it’s still something you have to   contend with and address … especially  with maintaining a tokamak reactor. That’s where my first stop at the Culham Science  Center comes into play and the solution I got   to see. Before we get to that, I’d like to thank  Surfshark for sponsoring this portion of today's  

video. I always recommend using a VPN when using  public Wifi, but VPNs can be very useful even   when you’re home. A lot of online services use  some pretty sophisticated commercial tracking   and machine learning to apply very targeted  advertising ... a VPN can protect you from some   of that. SurfShark’s CleanWeb does a great job  blocking ads, trackers, and malicious websites   making it safer to use the internet even at home.  And you can even make it look like your IP address   is coming from a completely different country.  This can come in handy if you want to stream  

a video that’s only available from a specific  location. One of the best parts of SurfShark is   that it’s easy to set up on all your devices,  whether that’s iPhone or Android, Mac or PC.   SurfShark is the only VPN to offer one account  to use with an unlimited number of devices. Use  

my code to get 3 extra months for free. SurfShark  offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, so there’s   no risk to try it out for yourself. Link is  in the description below. Thanks to Surfshark   and to all of you for supporting the channel. Back  to the first stop at the Culham Science Center. I had a chance to check the Remote Applications  in Challenging Environments facility, or RACE,   which is all about creating mechanical systems  to maintain dangerous or difficult to access   machinery. One of the systems they’ve created  is called MASCOT, which is essentially acting   like an extension of an operator’s arms and  hands. They can manipulate the remote gripper  

to remove panels, change out components,  and do maintenance at a safe distance. One of my first questions, which some  of you are probably wondering too,   was why this isn’t a computer controlled  system. Why use a human operator? “So there are levels of automation in  this in terms of complete automation,   given that it's one machine and we are again, very  delicate around everything we do. Impacted delays  

is so huge. It's still being done manually  and well through the life of this machine.   Looking forward to other reactors in the future,  there will be higher levels of automation in that,   where they're gonna be running for  extended periods of time, have longer   life durations, and be doing more routine  work. Where this is an experimental reactor,   it's much more, you might do something just  once. So the idea of programming an automated  

sequence for it … there isn't that huge value. But  definitely going into future reactors is that.” “So you can retract the robot,  pull the booms in and out,   move them into position through automation.  But when it comes to the actual handling of   the environment, that's what a human takes over.” As you can see from the monitors, they’ve  created a digital twin of the reactor to   work within for simulation, and to also  give them multiple viewing angles of   what’s happening in the environment. Before  an operator can even touch the real machine,  

it requires 1,000 hours of training  time, which I actually got to experience   for a few minutes. To say it was  fun would be an understatement. “This is, yeah, photo switch  for the switch. And push   this button. The good button  is on that is force speed start  

to activate. Okay. You can so hit the table.  You can feel the force speed back. Yeah.” “Okay. And. Oh, whoa. That is crazy.” “Oh, another bingo.” “Yeah…” “Okay. This is the best video game  I've ever made. That is so cool." “Can we fight you on that?” “ Yes. That is so awesome.” You could feel the edges of the block, or the  right hand gripper knocking into the left hand   gripper, as well as the weight of the block  when you lifted it up off the table. It was  

pretty easy to see why those haptics are important  for operation. Down on the floor of the facility   they have a massive work area of experiments with  different technologies at play. Not to go down   a rabbit hole too much, but in talking with the  team they explained why they’re experimenting with   mechanically driven robotics, with things like  gears and motors, versus cables like MASCOT uses. “These are off-the-shelf, two-handed manipulator  robots that we are starting to work with and see   what the value is in applying that  kind of off the shelf technology.” “Very different in the technology  they use between them. This one is   all mechanically driven throughout  with conceptual shafts and gears   as opposed to a cable driven system like the  mascot or the other, off the shelf robot there.  

They have different benefits and drawbacks. The  cable driven ones are much more dextrous and feel   a lot lighter, but the mechanically driven  ones are massively more radiation tolerant.” When I got to try out this setup, it felt  somewhat similar to the training system I used,   but I could feel the ticking and grinding of the  gears as well. It took a minute to get used to,   but … I don’t mean to brag, but I think  I picked it up pretty quickly. It’s   surprising how quickly you adapt  to the machine and get the basic   hang of it. My lifetime of playing  video games may have also helped. But even with that training, you  still need something to test it on   in the real world before you move  into use on the actual tokamak,   which is why they have a lifesize replica for  the team to train on. I felt like a kid on  

Christmas morning getting to go inside  the tokamak and get a better sense for   the size and scope of the device. In case you  didn’t know, JET is shaped like a giant donut,   which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since a  hint is right in the name: Joint European Torus. “So this is the inside of that torus. So this is  where we come to do training and we practice using   mascot, which is our remote manipulator that  we do work with. Essentially like a one-to-one   replica of the inside of our machines. So it's  all sort of made from scratch … apart from this   section that I'm in right now, this is one of  the actual octas of a jet. So Jet is split into  

eight segments, but there's actually nine, so the  spare makes up part of the training facility.” “So mascot snakes in round here. And then  we have the task module come from a separate   opening. The task module is a table, but a fancy  table. And, the operators can basically practice   all of the tasks that they need to do actually  in the machine because it's really important   that the machine is turned back on as quickly  as possible. So, it is really important that the   operators know what they're doing and they're  really skilled at what they're doing because   dropping a bolt somewhere and here would be bad.  But dropping a bolt inside JET would be really bad

While maintaining Fusion reactors  is a key part of RACE’s research,   it’s not the only application of what they’re  doing. It has much broader applications for   other industries that have hazardous  materials or environments that might   be difficult for humans to safely operate  in. We’re looking into a potential future   video on this topic, so let me know  if you’d like to see more on robotics.   I’ve just scratched the surface of what I saw at  RACE, but I was blown away by all of the different   experiments. This is an aspect of fusion energy  that I hadn’t thought about or even considered. My next stop was the newer MAST-U tokamak, where I  got to speak to the Director of Toakamak Science,   Dr. Fulvio Militello. This ties right  back to what I said at the beginning.   The joke that fusion is always 30 years  away is ignoring all of the incredible   progress that’s been made over the past  40-50 years. Fulvio showed me the first  

working tokamak that was operated  at the facility … it was oddly cute. “Our tours start here because this is a tokamak  reactor, this is an experiment that we had here   on site working. It's not a model, it's the  real thing. In the 1960s. And this also,   to give you an idea of how much the field has  evolved in 40, 50 years, it's an incredible   progress. From a device that can literally sit on  a table to what you’ll probably see at JET later.” So things have evolved from small table  top experiments to large scale facilities.   The MAST-U (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak Upgrade)  project is important to the UKAEA because it’s a   major step towards achieving commercially viable  fusion power plants that would provide clean,   safe, and abundant energy. MAST-U is focused  on solving the key challenge of plasma exhaust,   which is needed to achieve commercial fusion  power, and its new plasma exhaust system,   called Super-X, has been designed  to reduce heat and power loads,   potentially making diverter components last  longer. In my conversation with Fulvio he  

mentioned that the diverter is key for  commercial power plant designs down the   road because of how it handles the excess heat  that’s not used for electricity generation. “It’s fundamentally the handle  of a cup full of hot coffee. So,   our plasma is the coffee that we want to  drink. It's what we really want to get, right?” ”Right.” “We want to get this coffee as hot as possible,  but we will not be able to handle it if we were   just holding the cup with our hands. So we  need a handle … and the diverter has the same   function. It tries to separate this very hot  and very energetic plasma from the surface of  

the device. And so we divert our plasma energy.  In this version of the device here, the mockup   or up here and on here in this feature. And that  component is specifically designed to accommodate   this very large energy device. This design that  we have is the most unique in the world. Nobody   else has it. It's called a Super-X configuration.  It's just a technical term that we physicists use,   but the idea is that it's specifically designed  to accommodate this very large energy.”

“Yeah. I was very curious about the  diverter. What made that … because that's   a very significant upgrade from my understanding.” “Yes, it is. MAST upgrade has already generated  extremely interesting physics associated   with this new feature. So, for example, we've  been able to see that the energy that is coming   out of the machine is very well handled by this  new component. And the performance that we have   observed compared to more standard designs are  a factor 10 higher. So this is a really good  

result that we have already discussed with the  scientific community and we're very proud of it.   And we will also, in the new experiments that  we're doing now, we will want to understand how   our plasma is interacting with this new feature  of the device. And we are very hopeful this design   will become part of future power plants.” The MAST-U's 'spherical tokamak' design  

has the potential to be a cheaper and more  efficient means of providing fusion energy   than is currently possible in larger devices.  As Fulvio mentioned, the new diverter reduces   the heat of the exhaust material by a factor of  10, making it possible to channel the exhaust   out of the machine at temperatures that  the machine's components can withstand.   That should increase the machine's lifespan and  economic viability. But in the near term MAST-U’s  

whole purpose is to continue experiments and  learning how this specific design handles plasma,   increases energy output, and more. The ultimate  goal is another big step towards power plants. “And also the element is super important. These  experimental devices are not just for the physics,   they are also to learn how to operate  future power plants. How to maintain them,   how to make sure that they are in the proper  state. How to improve them. So there is also   an important operational capability building  that is done with these experimental devices.” Which brings us back to JET.

“Woah …. Woah! This is massive!” “Welcome to the JET tokamak” “Oh my god …” “Welcome to the torus.” “This is massive.” “This is my reaction when I did my  thesis on a tokamak that was this   big. And the first day I came here  I couldn't believe it was this big.”

I can count on one hand the number of times  I’ve been blown away like that. One of my   favorite moments was walking into the vehicle  assembly building at NASA, where they built   the Apollo rockets, and getting to see one of  the space shuttles getting decommissioned. This   ranks right up there … but that was Fernanada  Rimini giving me the tour of JET. She’s kind   of a legend in fusion energy research and was  instrumental in JET’s recent record breaking   results. So it wasn’t just getting to see JET in  person that was awesome, it was getting to meet  

people like Fulvio and having Fernanda show  me around JET that took it to the next level. JET has been around since the early 1980’s and  has gone through many upgrades and revisions   over time. You can see some of that just by  the way it looks. It’s kind of like the house   that Jack built. When I asked Fernanda  how JET has stayed relevant for so long,   I thought her answer tied in nicely  to what Fulvio was hitting on too. “One of the biggest advantages of JET is  that JET was designed and has always been   operated with the physics and the  engineering teams working together.   So you don't just get physicists writing  impressions on the wall and engineers in a corner   doing their work there. There really is a dialogue  between the two. And this allows the fact that,  

for example, when there is a physics breakthrough,  like, I'm going into details now, but there was   something discovered in the early eighties. There  was the H mode that gives you plasma hotter.   It wasn't quite prepared for  that, but because engineering   picked up on it, JET was changed significantly  and we could operate in this H mode.” But it wasn't just the synergy between  physicists and engineers that have kept   JET relevant. There’s another thing that’s been  taking the world by storm the past year or two,   but has already been playing a role  in all fusion research, and that’s AI.

“Do you think AI is playing a big role in what   feels like an acceleration  of what we're learning?” “AI is playing a big role. It  will play a big role in the way   we control the plasma and in the way we  protect the plasma. So yes, it will.” “We have solutions that come out and say,  oh, maybe we could implement this. Real   time systems right from AI and the physics teams  are taking advantage of that. So you can iterate   through simulations quickly. We can do simulations  in real time as well. We can do model based  

stuff in real time these days, which  we couldn't even 10, 20 years ago.” That’s just one example of why I think it feels  like fusion research and startups are accelerating   these days. I mean, there’s a lot of factors, but  computer modeling is dramatically accelerating   research. Material science advances are addressing  engineering challenges, like superconductors   making smaller, stronger magnets. I’ve touched  on that in a previous video about the MIT   spin-off Commonwealth Fusion Systems. There’s  a lot of challenging issues getting resolved. As big and crazy as the JET tokamak looks,   it’s been an essential tool for  the scientific community to learn   about fusion reactor designs and how to  control plasma and the reactions. They’ve  

added components over time to test different  aspects of how things work and learn from it. But the part that kind of blew my  mind was that they’re also going to   be learning from JET’s decommissioning,  which will be happening in about a year. “You can be learning from the decommission?” “Oh, yes, absolutely.” “I love that.” “The samples, the first, for example, they  will take samples from the tiles that are   inside and analyze them to see what has the  effect of the plasma been on them. How is the   material been implanted in the tiles?  How far all these things will be? How   are the material changes from the  nutrons? How do we handle it? Can   we handle it all with remote handling or  will at some point people need to go in.”

“I love that you're learning from every aspect  of operating it, learning the skill sets,   how to operate the machine, how to take care  of it, how to take it down. I love that.” “Yes. That will be absolutely, you know, a first  in terms of trying to learn as much as possible.” The UKAEA is really taking a holistic approach  toward fusion research. They have a new facility   built that’s currently looking into tritium  research, which is a major sticking point   for the future of fusion, and the fuel that most  people find the most promising. As of right now,  

there’s not enough tritium production in the  world to support a commercial power plant,   so that’s another thing to figure out.  They’re also partnering with private   companies to support varying approaches  for fusion power … they have an incredible   agnostic approach. I’ll be talking about  one of those companies in the next video,   First Light Fusion, so be sure to subscribe  and turn on notifications to not miss that. I was incredibly impressed with the size  and scope of what the UKAEA is doing to   support the broader fusion industry.  I was even more impressed by all the   amazing people I met during my day there.  Thanks to Oliver, Leah, Fulvio, Fernanda,   and everyone else I spoke to. This only  scratched the surface of what I experienced,  

so I’m going to try and get more of this out on  the Still TBD podcast and over on my Patreon. So what do you think? Jump into the  comments and let me know. And be sure   to check out my follow up podcast  Still TBD where we'll be discussing   some of your feedback. Thanks to all of  my patrons, who get ad free versions of   every video. And thanks to all of you for  watching. I’ll see you in the next one.

2023-06-15 15:09

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