Tuesday, 21 March 2017

What's happening in Fusion? Part 2

Written by Sam Ha

In case people missed part 1, these posts are a small collection of questions and answers about what's happening in the world of fusion, especially looking to the future. Everyone is welcome to ask questions below, and I'll put together a Q&A post if there are enough questions and answers. Without further ado, the first question:

Q: So Why Is It Taking So Long?
This one is a classic and there are so many bits of the answer, but I'm going to try and keep this answer short.

The systems that we expect to be able to generate significant amounts of fusion power reliably are (by and large) magnetically confined fusion devices (MCF). What this means is that we turn a small amount of gas (generally two types of hydrogen) into the 4th state of matter: Plasma.

Plasma is a completely ionised gas and as such, can be controlled by magnetic fields. Early experiments in nuclear fusion (like these!) used simple magnetic fields to confine plasma.

Several problems that hinder our plans of fusion electricity have been discovered, but some of the most difficult have been due to confining plasma.

The plasma that we generate stores a huge amount of energy that must be well contained. The problem is that the plasma becomes very difficult to contain and over the years many types of plasma instabilities have been discovered. These instabilities cause the plasma to escape our magnetic trap and collide with the walls. When this happens there is a considerable amount of damage. To the plasma, of course. The walls can also be damaged, but there's several hundred kg's of the wall and only a couple of grams of plasma, and the plasma always comes off worst in a fight.

Therein lies one of the problems with fusion: plasma is very difficult to control. The physics behind these instabilities are also very complicated, but there are a number of experiments being carried out around the world that are investigating how these instabilities arise and what we could do to get rid of them.

However, we have made some good progress in the meantime: a common measure of how effective a fusion device is, is something called the Triple Product. This is the go-to way of measuring the performance of fusion devices and we've been able to improve the triple product of machines at an astonishing rate, even outpacing the rapid development of computer chips (often called Moore's Law)

Q: Tokamaks are cool and all, but what about Stellarators or Laser Fusion?
Stellarators were initially researched alongside tokamaks in the early days, mainly in America. The design of a stellarator was a strike of brilliance to counteract particles drifting out of their orbit around the torus, by way of some clever arrangement of the magnetic fields. 

In comparison, tokamaks require the plasma to carry a current, which is most commonly achieved by one, large magnet in the centre: the central solenoid. In many cases, this is a limitation that forces tokamaks to be pulsed machines, requiring regular stops and starts. For fusion research to this point, the limitations of short pulses (<1 minute) hasn't stopped developments, but in the future, continuous operation will be much more valuable. Regularly stopping and starting powerful machinery is a good way to break it quickly!

The initial trouble of designing stellarators without powerful computers and the good results from tokamaks led to the majority of effort being placed on tokamaks. Now, stellarators (like Wendelstein 7-X) are seeing a resurgence as the design of large, complex reactors has become possible thanks to significant increases in computational power.
And now to talk about Laser Fusion! This is a form of Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) and fuses hydrogen pellets by imploding them on all sides using really powerful lasers (really cool, all around). The American National Ignition Facility (NIF) excels at this.

NIF recently announced they had reached an important milestone never before seen: they achieved breakeven conditions during a controlled reaction. The main goal of ITER is to reach breakeven conditions in an MCF device, so one thing is definitely clear: this is a monumental achievement. 

What does it mean for producing a fusion power plant? Well, that's a little harder to answer. Firstly, the breakeven conditions are considering the energy absorbed by the small, hydrogen pellet, which is <1% of the total laser pulse energy. Secondly, to generate significant amounts of energy, a regular reaction rate is required, while NIF aims to have 400 pulses in the entire year. 

The road to a fusion power plant using lasers isn't a smooth one and I'm eager to see the achievements from NIF. I'm not expecting to see a laser powered fusion power plant for a similarly long time to a tokamak power plant.

Q: What about after DEMO?
DEMO is the Demonstration Power Plant, designed to prove the viability of a tokamak power plant putting Fusion electricity on the grid (see Part 1 for more details). DEMO isn't the end of the road for fusion research, in the same way that the first fission power plant wasn't the end of the road for fission research. There are advanced reactor designs that have gaps that need to be filled in by ITER and DEMO, such as radiation tolerant materials.

One area that I'm very excited about is the design of so-called hybrid reactors. These reactors find a harmony between fusion and fission, to make a fusion reactor that can get rid of waste from and make new fuel for fission reactors, while reducing the complexity and difficulty involved in making a fusion reactor. Designs of these types of reactors can't be properly evaluated and developed for manufacture until a fusion reactor is up and running, so that they can be demonstrated to be safe to a regulatory body. Hybrid reactors are not a focus for UKAEA, or in the UK in general, but are being seriously investigated in other countries.

Next Time
Questions from readers!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

What's happening in fusion?

Written by Sam Ha

Some of the questions I had when I began looking into fusion research were surprisingly difficult to get answers for. That's not because the answers are closely guarded (pro tip: they're never closely guarded in fusion). I was just asking the wrong questions or the wrong people. I wanted to put together some of these questions and answers to help any readers that might be curious.

(If people have any questions that this doesn't answer, please please PLEASE ask in a comment or message or e-mail to samuel.ha@ukaea.uk)

I'm going to write this in parts, so if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in comments or e-mails and I'll write a Q&A if there are enough questions.

Part 1: The plan for fusion research
Curious-university-student-Sam wanted to know what the plan for fusion research was: which machines are going to be built, when and why. This part covers some of the information about what research is planned

Q: When will I have a fusion power plant?
A: This question is all too common and there are various answers depending on who you believe, but I'm going to try and keep it simple: in Europe, the plan (or EUROfusion Roadmap) is to begin building a Demonstration Fusion Power Plant (known as DEMO) in the 2030's and put Fusion electricity on the grid in the 2040's; widespread commercial deployment can only come after successful operation of DEMO.

Q: How definite is this?
A: We could have electricity from fusion reactors a long time after or before the EUROfusion roadmap's target of the 2040's. Why is this?

Firstly, the roadmap is a long term goal with a lot of unknowns, and ITER is being designed to eliminate a lot of these unknowns. The long and short of it is that ITER is a really complicated machine being built in an even more complicated way and has been delayed multiple times. This could have a knock on to delay the design of a DEMO reactor and increase the time to fusion electricity.

Secondly, ITER isn't the only reactor that we could use to understand some of these unknowns. There are lots of ideas being tried and some other very advanced reactors being built that can help develop our knowledge.

Thirdly, the EUROfusion roadmap is the research stream representing 26 EU member states (+ Switzerland!), whereas fusion research happens all over the world! Other research is being carried out in Japan, China, Korea (who partner with many US researchers), Russia and India, to name a few countries. Korea want to build their reactor by 2037 and China want to build an electricity generating reactor even sooner, called CFETR (Chinese Fusion Engineering Test Reactor).

CFETR not only generates a lot of fusion power (200MW, compared to 500MW in ITER and a 'measly' 16MW in JET), but it has something called a Breeder Blanket which creates more fuel for the reactor and turns the fusion power into useful heat, which can be used to produce electricity. CFETR isn't intended to be as groundbreaking as a DEMO in some important ways, so could take a lot less time to build. That doesn't change the fact that CFETR could be the first device to be able to produce large amounts of electricity from fusion reactions, and that makes me very excited for this machine in particular.

Q: So who's looking into what?
A: Everyone's looking into everything, more or less. There are many designs of DEMO fusion reactors and everyone has a name for theirs: In Europe, we call ours EU-DEMO and Korea call theirs K-DEMO, other names are similarly imaginative.

As an example, a big area that needs developing is materials (an introduction to the problem was covered by our own Alex and Jim!)

European researchers have been developing a special type of steel for several decades now, called Eurofer, which is a type of Low (or Reduced) Activation Ferritic/Martensitic Steel (RAFM). China have also been developing a similar material, called CLAM (Chinese Low Activation Martensitic steel). India have too. So have Japan.

Obviously, I'm oversimplifying the process of materials research and I'm doing a great discredit to the all of the teams I just mentioned, by implying they're all doing the same thing. The reality is that there are subtle and not so subtle differences and each team's working with their own constraints and goals, but the outcome is that many of the countries contributing to ITER are each researching their own low activation, ferritic/martensitic steels.

And the reason is simple: we're all working towards the same goal and each trying to develop fusion technology in a way that people can benefit from. The developments that each country make are made in the spirit of collaboration.

Next time:
So why is it taking so long?
Tokamaks are cool and all, but what about Stellarators or Laser Fusion?
What about after DEMO?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Graduates of 2016

It’s been that time of year again! We’ve got a new gaggle of graduates and they’re here to open up and share a bit about themselves with Tokamak Tales!

 As is tradition, they have been asked some serious and not-so-serious questions!

Name Joe Dobrashian
Department PS and RF Systems
What was the favourite part of your degree? My group design project on designing the electrical system of an off-shore gas rig
What’s your pet peeve? When you know someone has seen a message but they do not respond
Hopes for the graduate scheme? To put my studies into practice and to settle in well in the company
If you could be any animal what would you be and why? An elephant – they’re intelligent and strong so they can do anything that they want
If you could have any super power what would it be and why? Teleportation so I could go anywhere at any time and could be get to work in no time

Name Alex Wagner
Department RACE
What was the favourite part of your degree? Hmmm, academically, I would say that my favourite module was based on ‘Energy and the Environment’, which I found interesting and relevant. However, there was another module where the lecturer was Canadian, who would regularly get side tracked and either start talking about his obsession with gongs, or start randomly shouting enthusiastically about nothing important! He was a very entertaining lecturer indeed.
What’s your pet peeve? I must say, that I am starting to believe in the ‘earphone fairy’; a creature that enters your pocket or bag and deliberately tangles the cabling to your earphones, even after being carefully and neatly stored in said pocket or bag.
Hopes for the graduate scheme? I hope that the graduate scheme would offer me good engineering experience, whilst having the career support and guidance from a mentor/supervisor.
If you could be any animal what would you be and why? Along with many people, the ability to fly is quite enticing, so some sort of bird would be good. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to be a bird that is low down on the food chain, so probably a Peregrine Falcon, or a Golden Eagle (flying around North Scotland).
If you could have any super power what would it be and why? Being able to be invisible on command, or to be able to pause time and resume it (like Bernard’s watch) sounds quite fun.

Name Douglas (Doug) Craven
Department Engineering Implementation
What was the favourite part of your degree? Statics & Stress Analysis
What’s your pet peeve?  Horses being ridden on public roads, totally unnecessary. Aside from having no handlebars or a steering wheel or any brakes you have to drive past them at 2mph and they freak out if you go any faster, they poo anywhere and everywhere!
Hopes for the graduate scheme? To improve my public speaking and presentation skills/confidence.
To attain a good knowledge of the systems involved in creating, sustaining and monitoring the nuclear fusion reaction as a whole.
To apply the skills and knowledge I have already learned through previous work and studies.
To be an integral part of the progress of nuclear fusion.
If you could be any animal what would you be and why?
If you could have any super power what would it be and why?

Name Ian Clargo
Department Central Engineering Department (although working within RACE for DEMO)
What was the favourite part of your degree? The consumption of alcohol (sorry I meant knowledge)
What’s your pet peeve?  Bags on seats (which doesn’t actually annoy me) but then the glare/tut/moan/complaint when I ask them to move it. (“You’re right actually, I really would prefer to stand on this train for the next 3 hours rather than causing you to get a little dust on the bottom on your Asda bags”)
Hopes for the graduate scheme? To get heavily involved in a technology capable of changing the world and pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve.
If you could be any animal what would you be and why?  Pterodactyl - because they’re awesome, can fly and you get the added perk of getting a glimpse back in history.
If you could have any super power what would it be and why? Am I the only who with superpowers or does everybody have superpowers? Either way, still probably telekinesis because I can subtly use my powers or I can just go mental with them.

Name Ronan Kelly
Department RACE
What was the favourite part of your degree? Writing a ray-tracer* from scratch, and using it to render a 3D scene from scratch for the first time.

I felt like a god.

*Ray-tracing: imagine bouncing imaginary light rays off imaginary shapes in a computer to create an imaginary image. Imagine it…

What’s your pet peeve? Computers, they’re the worst.
Hopes for the graduate scheme? To do interesting work with clever people! And drink lots of coffee along the way.
If you could be any animal what would you be and why? A sloth with the head of an owl. Why? Evening lounging
If you could have any super power what would it be and why? The power to create a miniature sun inside a metal doughnut on Earth! …and why? To power my new GPU. And then sell any surplus electrons at great profit.

So there we have it! Another year of graduate intake for CCFE and RACE!

Monday, 26 September 2016

What do our Graduates do now?

The graduates at CCFE go on to do some amazing things. This post is a catch up with some of our graduates to see what they've got up to after finishing the CCFE Graduate Scheme.

Sarah Medley
Physicist – I studied physics at university, but I’m now becoming increasingly interested in the engineering side of things!

What year did you finish the graduate scheme?

What’s your current role?
I’m a Tritium Plant Engineer in the Tritium Engineering and Science Group at CCFE. We operate the tritium plant to provide JET with the tritium fuel it needs for fusion experiments, and we also undertake scientific research using tritium.

What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a range of different projects, including upgrading some of the tritium plant systems in preparation for the next set of deuterium-tritium experiments at JET, and developing a small experimental facility to investigate the interaction of tritium with fusion-relevant materials.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on so far and why was it interesting?
I’m happy to say that all the projects I’ve worked on so far at CCFE have been interesting, because they have involved learning so many new things!

What advice would you give the fresh-faced, younger version of yourself before starting university (if any!)

I would say don’t be afraid of doing things wrong or making mistakes, as the best way to develop yourself is to go outside your comfort zone!

Ant Shaw
(Picture: Ant Shaw (left) and Alex Meakins (right) presenting the JET Data Dasboard)
Studied physics at university

What year did you finish the graduate scheme?

What’s your current role?
Software engineer with the data and coding group

What are you currently working on?
A number of projects, with the largest 2 being the JET Data Dashboard (a web-based interface for searching and browsing through JET session and pulse data) and the CPF (Central Physics File) System (a high-level database with a small subset of important data for each pulse, allowing more easy data analysis over large numbers of different pulses).

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on so far and why was it interesting?
Can I pick 2?
-          Analysing the effects of Resonant Magnetic Perturbations using MAST Doppler Back-Scattering. I was essentially given raw diagnostic data, and had to apply everything I knew of the physics of the situation and data analysis techniques to produce the end results.
-          Creating the JET Data Dashboard. Building a tool which I wanted to use was very satisfying, and I had to learn an awful lot to even start the project, which was very interesting.

What advice would you give the fresh-faced, younger version of yourself before starting university (if any!)
Take any physics-based work you can get, especially talking to academics at your university for summer projects. Also get familiar with computer programming as a concept and with a little practical experience. Regardless of where you end up as a physicist, you will be programming at some point as data analysis is much easier than with a pen and paper!

Matti Coleman
Mechanical engineering with renewable energy (MEng) – University of Edinburgh

What year did you finish the graduate scheme?

What’s your current role?
DEMO Design Integration and Project Coordination Officer at EUROfusion

What are you currently working on?
For the past year and a half I have been on a secondment based near Munich, Germany, at the Power Plant Physics & Technology Department in EUROfusion, coordinating research and design activities on the European demonstrational fusion reactor known as DEMO. I liaise with researchers across Europe, chiefly concerning remote maintenance and superconducting magnets, for which I am responsible. I also design parts of DEMO and coordinate design and analysis tasks on DEMO reactor integration issues, which can incorporate a wide range of topics, such as neutronics, electromagnetic loads, remote maintainability, thermohydraulic efficiency, and structural integrity.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on so far and why was it interesting?
Tough question! I’ve been lucky enough to work on several very interesting projects whilst at UKAEA, including DEMO Remote Maintenance, building the UK’s own MAST Upgrade reactor, the Table Top Plasma, AMAZE, and now DEMO once again. It comes down to personal preference of course, and I have always been more inclined to work at the conceptual level, so for me working on DEMO has been the most interesting. I love coming up with ideas and working with only a few fixed boundary conditions; I enjoy being able to turn the whole design on its head with a simple “what if..?” question. Working on DEMO has that element to it and, as we are designing an entire reactor, it also encompasses all of the tokamak engineering design fields, most of which come up on a daily basis – so I get a little of everything!

What advice would you give the fresh-faced, younger version of yourself before starting university (if any!)
Try to combine doing something you love with making a difference.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

JExiT: How do our young engineers and scientists feel about Brexit? And how might it affect the UK fusion program?

Disclaimer: This blog post is not representative of the opinions of UKAEA but are merely the opinions of some of the people who work here. There are some generalisations which I freely admit are just that! If this post offends you in any way then that was not my intention (unless you’re Michael Gove).

Thursday’s vote has cast a shadow over Culham in Oxfordshire; the site where the “Joint” European Torus (JET) is based. It replicates the process that powers the sun, nuclear fusion. We are a world leading laboratory and possess knowledge about operating and maintaining a fusion reactor that exists nowhere else.

Fusion is too big a problem for any one nation to solve in isolation. It requires a diverse range of scientific, technical and engineering knowledge, as well as manufacturing capability and political will. Commercial fusion energy is a technology which has potentially profound social ramifications; it could revolutionise global energy security increasing quality of life, reduce wars fought over border disputes and drilling rights and increase our knowledge and capability. The development cycle is long and difficult. Wars come and go, governments and countries rise and fall, biodiversity plummets and greenhouse emissions ramp up and all the time fusion development and international collaboration continues to narrow in on our goal, as it has since the 1950s.

JET is the largest magnetically confined fusion device capable of running the fuel mix required for a commercial reactor (Deuterium-Tritium). It is a key device on the fusion roadmap and essential to inform the design and operation of its successor, ITER, currently under construction across the channel in France. Funding for the operation of JET has been secured until 2018. Negotiations will take place to extend this until at least 2020. With ITER not expected to be in an operational state before at least 2025, vital skills and expertise will be lost unless an extension is secured. The majority of work on site is funded through Euratom, part of the Horizon 2020 framework which is ultimately paid for through our EU membership. It may be possible to become a non-EU member (as Switzerland is). At best, this will cost us as much as before and we will have the same privileges as we currently do, with the condition of free movement of people. Again, that's the best case. So what about UK funding? Well, post-Brexit Britain may be headed for a recession. We'll be waiting to see what happens in the coming months and have our fingers crossed that big science projects continue in the UK

JET is not the only project we manage on site, but it is a marvel of European collaboration.

Ramifications for people
What of the individuals who work at Culham and of the wider scientific community?
A poll from Nature published last month showed that 83% of UK researchers backed remain with 5% unsure and 12% backing Brexit. Of those intending to cast a vote, 78% predicted that Britain leaving the EU would harm UK science, 9% thought it would benefit science. Another poll commissioned for the previous general election showed that scientists are in general left leaning which from personal experience does not surprise me, especially in the younger generation.

So what reaction has there been from our graduates?
Soon after the result, after the initial anger and shock most tried to see the funny side. One instance was taking a quiz to determine “Which EU country you should move to”.
I got Iceland (which isn’t in the EU but is part of the single market). I don’t think it has a particularly thriving fusion program but it does have hot springs, volcanoes and most importantly… Bj√∂rk! (and are better than England at kicking a ball around). Following this more earnest discussion began. I asked some of our graduates how they felt about the result and if they would consider a move abroad. I have attempted to summarise their responses below:

How did you feel on hearing the result?
Shock, anger and sadness. The feeling that politicians are just in it for themselves and that some of the british public fell for their lies (I accept that people on both sides had many different reasons for voting). There was also the feeling that there are clearly vast social and political divisions within the country and that the EU was failing to connect with many British citizens effectively.

Would you consider moving country, where and why?
Everyone I asked said they would consider or actively are considering it. The most popular destinations were France or Germany (because of the Fusion programs and ITER), Switzerland (because of CERN) or Canada. Scotland and Scandinavian countries also proved popular. I think their reasons for leaving the country were broadly similar:

  1. They want to live in a progressive society, at the forefront of scientific/technological and social advancement.
  2. They don’t want to live in a country that they now perceive to be irrational, intolerant and harking back to a bygone era that never really existed.
  3. General uncertainty which will hopefully subside if anyone decides to take responsibility and start sorting this mess out.

One graduate summed it up succinctly: “Europe. I voted with my ballot paper, so I might as well now vote with my feet”. Unfortunately with the changes that will come into force leaving to start fresh in the EU may become more difficult for those without dual nationality.

What you think the outlook for Culham is?
Most agree that nothing will change in the immediate future and that JET will be granted the extension it needs. However there are fears that the fusion program here will be used as a political bargaining chip. Even if we get some access to the Horizon 2020 and the future framework we will not be allowed to lead (any access would almost certainly require signing up to free movement of people just as Switzerland has). The chances of the UK becoming a DEMO design centre are much lower now (EU-DEMO is the first demonstration commercial EU fusion reactor scheduled for the 2040s; the UK is simply too small to fund a UK-DEMO without unprecedented peacetime political will). With all the non-JET contracts we are involved in (ITER, DEMO, ESS) the UK now has far less leverage and bargaining power and will have to rely on our expertise, which are exemplary in these fields, but not necessarily/always unique.

Now that the dust has begun to settle how do you feel about the future?
Uncertain. Especially in the mid-long term it is felt that we as a country will miss out. We will still be a global player in science, technology, engineering, finance etc. but diminished. Future generations will have to suffer the consequences of a poorer, less diverse Britain. The obvious social divisions within the country are also a real worry to many. Practical things like buying a house will probably be more difficult on the whole. Prices will drop (or not go up quite as fast), but mortgage interest rates look set to go up and it may become financially unviable (or at least even less attractive) for young scientists and engineers to put down roots in Oxfordshire with austerity set to continue.

How has this changed your view of Britain and the British?
Many of us who consider ourselves British (or former-European) were angry with our country for allowing this to happen. But it’s not right to blame the British people. There were clearly many reasons people voted on both sides and if anything this should be a wakeup call to prevent this political trend of misinformation and anti-intellectualism from continuing (I’m looking at you Michael Gove). This is also a wake-up call for Europe as it is clear that the EU has failed to connect effectively with some areas of society. Those of us from elsewhere in Europe were saddened and felt like they were not welcome in the country they have been proud to call home. We are also worried about the far-right feeling vindicated opening a door to xenophobia and racism throughout the EU.

We are also lucky to have a large number of European engineers, scientists permanently based on site as well as visiting scientists from various EU institutions. How have they been affected? I asked my French colleague Alexandrine Kantor (@Alexa_Kantor), an electrical design engineer, how she felt, I’ve summarised her heartfelt response below:

"I am a proud French citizen by birth with multiple East European backgrounds, but my heart has belonged to the UK since I arrived in October 2013. When I woke up on Friday, my first feelings were a mix of sadness, anger and disappointment. It is hard to describe but I really felt, and still feel, unwanted. A heartbreaking pain, like the end of a relationship. The UK/Britons just turned their backs on me.
One of the popular reason to vote LEAVE was for immigration. We are hard-working. Some, less qualified, take the jobs that native Britons don't want. With all these jobs, we pay taxes, a lot of taxes. And with those taxes, we help the people in need. Yes, we help other migrants, but also Britons in need.
On a personal note, I have a great job that I am afraid to lose, I am also afraid to lose my eligibility to work in France.  This may be unlikely, but the fact is; no one knows. So yes, unwanted, heartbroken, insecure are my three words to describe how I have felt since The EU referendum.
But my life is in the UK which is now my home, and I truly have faith on the British people to find a solution to rise up stronger from this political and social crisis. "

Alex then went off to the pub to support England in their match against Iceland…

Luckily for us on Culham site, the European fusion program and ITER needs JET. Therefore it is very unlikely that we will down tools at the end of the funding cycle in 2018. That is as long as the British government and EU has enough sense not to throw away a world class facility with unique knowledge and expertise; to quote CEO Steve Cowley “the logic is there”... unfortunately logic gives me scant solace where politicians are concerned…

The question is not whether this lab will continue to some extent over the next decade (it will) - It is whether or not we will be a world leader or merely a participant.

Politicians can make it difficult for the scientific community but we must not turn our backs on each other. We must reach out and continue to collaborate wherever possible because every piece of the puzzle is important. Together we can realise commercial fusion energy. I only hope through this period of uncertainty we and the remnants of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland don’t get left behind ...If they do; there’s always Iceland.