Google’s New Algorithm Wants to Help Researchers Stabilize Nuclear Fusion Reactions

Advancing Fusion Research

There are already a number of researchers involved in developing stable nuclear fusion. The goal may seem simple enough in theory: harnessing the same energy that powers the Sun— but attaining it has proven to be rather difficult. For one, sustaining a stable nuclear fusion reaction is tricky, as it requires playing with variables that aren’t that easy to manipulate. That’s why Google Research is working in tandem with nuclear fusion company Tri-Alpha Energy to help simplify the process.

Their solution is a computer algorithm, dubbed the Optometrist algorithm, that can speed up experiments involving plasma, the core ingredient in a fusion reaction. It’s also the most challenging aspect to manipulate. “The whole thing is beyond what we know how to do even with Google-scale computer resources,” Ted Baltz, a senior software engineer from the Google Accelerated Science Team, wrote in a Google Research blog.

“We boiled the problem down to ‘let’s find plasma behaviors that an expert human plasma physicist thinks are interesting, and let’s not break the machine when we’re doing it’,” Baltz added. “This was a classic case of humans and computers doing a better job together than either could have separately.”

The Optometrist algorithm was applied to Tri-Alpha Energy’s C2-U machine, where it was able to perform experiments that usually took a month to finish in just a few hours. The result, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, was a 50 percent reduction in system-induced energy losses that increased total plasma energy. “It was only for about two milliseconds, but still, it was a first!” Baltz wrote. The next step is reaching that critical threshold necessary for nuclear fusion to occur and to stabilize.

A Truly Renewable Energy

Fusion research has garnered significant attention in recent years as scientists have recognized its potential as a renewable and clean energy source. Nuclear fusion could generate four times the amount of energy nuclear fission produces  (one fission event yields about 200 MeV of energy, or about 3.2 ´10-11 watt-seconds). It’s no wonder, then, that fusion is considered the “holy-grail” of energy research.

Recent questions in fusion research have been concerned with finding ways to stabilize the plasma that powers it — not an easy feat, since it requires temperatures of over 30 million degrees Celsius to sustain. Thus far, some researchers have proposed building better fusion reactors, and others are looking at the possibility of using a different base for plasma. Instead of the usual hydrogen, deuterium, or helium, physicists from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory have been tinkering with argon-based plasma.

Where does Google’s algorithm fit in? Well, it could significantly shorten the amount of time needed for each of these experiments. “Results like this might take years to solve without the power of advanced computation,” Baltz said. By running computational models alongside human experiments, the Optometrist algorithm can breeze through every possible combination for nuclear fusion to work.

Tri-Aplha Energy has already ditched the C2-U machine in favor of the more advanced Norman, which already achieved first plasma earlier this month. They’re set to build a power generator for demonstration pending more successful experiments with the Norman.

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GoPro trials Fusion 360-degree VR camera with Fox & others ahead of late 2017 launch

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GoPro announced on Tuesday that its spherical, 5.2K virtual reality Fusion camera is shipping to participants in an early pilot program, some prominent examples being Digital Domain, Fox Sports, Getty Images, the Golden State Warriors, and USA Today.
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A10X Fusion chip in new iPad Pro first consumer device built on TSMC’s 10nm process

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Third party analysts have examined the A10X Fusion processor found in the new iPad Pro, and it has been confirmed to be the first chip in a device using TMSC’s FinFET 10nm chip fabrication process.
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MIT Scientist Asserts That We Will Have Fusion Energy by 2030

Fusion on the Horizon

In the continuous pursuit of a truly renewable and clean energy source, nothing compares to nuclear fusion. Although scientists have already found ways to harness the energy from the reaction that powers stars, it hasn’t been an easy feat. Despite the advances in research pertaining to nuclear fusion, there still isn’t a stable — not to mention cost-efficient — way to power the electric grid with it. 

Fusion Energy: A Practical Guide [Infographic]
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According to the head of MIT’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak fusion project Earl Marmar, we may not have to wait long. Speaking to Inverse, Marmar said that we could potentially have nuclear fusion powering electric grids by the 2030s — that is, if we’re dedicated to continued research. “I think fusion energy on the grid by 2030 is certainly within reach by this point,” Marmar said. “2030 is probably aggressive, but I don’t think it’s wildly out of range.” This would be a timetable similar to what a Canadian collective is currently working towards.

The physics of nuclear fusion is actually something we understand pretty well at this point and it isn’t too hard to explain. At the most basic level, it’s the reverse of nuclear fission. In other words, instead of splitting atoms to release energy in fission, nuclear fusion combines small hydrogen atoms into a plasma that produces energy. In fact, that plasma produces several times more energy than what fission produces. This can’t just happen anywhere, though: it requires an environment with temperatures over 30 million degrees Celsius.

Tinkering with Technology

MIT’s tokamak reactor — named for its donut-shaped chamber — is no longer active. But, its more than 20 years of experience in fusion technology has left us with enough data to figure out how to sustain fusion reaction. That’s what we still don’t understand about using fusion: not knowing how to sustain is the only thing holding us back, according to Marmar. “So we know that fusion works; we know that the nuclear physics works. There are no questions from the nuclear physics,” he explained. “There are questions left on the technology side.”

There have been solutions proposed to to stabilize nuclear fusion, many of which are currently in the works. Marmar mentioned two of them in his interview: Tokamak Energy in the U.K. opted to decrease the size of the donut hole in their reactor to harness more plasma. The other effort comes from MIT where researchers have been working on increasing the strength of the magnetic field that sustains the plasma. An international effort funded by 35 countries is also working on ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment.

For Marmar, the pressure exists even outside the reactors. “We need to get going, because the need for fusion energy is very urgent, specifically in view of climate change,” he told Inverse. He thinks there’s still room to push nuclear fusion further — and if we don’t at least try, it could delay progress by another decade. Marmar does concede that even if there’s committed research, the 2030s still could be a fairly aggressive timeline to adhere to. Of course, a little pressure and healthy competition to meet a deadline might be just the motivation that’s needed.

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Fusion Breakthrough Puts Us One Step Closer to Limitless Clean Energy

Taking It Slow

Scientists consider nuclear fusion the “holy grail” of energy production for good reason. Not only could it provide a virtually unlimited amount of energy, the energy would also be clean.

Fusion Energy: A Practical Guide [Infographic]
Click to View Full Infographic

To that end, nuclear scientists have been hard at work since the dawn of the Atomic Age to replicate this energy that feeds the stars, and just this week, a team from the Chalmers University of Technology published a new study in Physical Review Letters that outlines a way to eliminate one of the biggest remaining obstacles.

While nuclear fission creates energy by splitting atoms, fusion works in reverse. By combining two light nuclei, usually hydrogen atoms, nuclear fusion generates several times more energy than fission. Sustaining this reaction, which occurs within conditions of intense pressure and high temperatures, is difficult on its own, and the matter is further complicated by runaway electrons, which can damage or even destroy fusion reactors.

The Chalmers researchers came up with a method to manage these runaway electrons. They found that injecting heavy ions in gas or pellet form into the reactor slows down the erring electrons by colliding with them. “When we can effectively decelerate runaway electrons, we are one step closer to a functional fusion reactor,” study co-author Linnea Hesslow said in a university press release.

A Renewable Game Changer

As efforts to improve the world’s renewable energy sources continue, many see nuclear fusion as having the most potential. It can provide clean energy, with virtually zero carbon emissions, and it isn’t seasonal like solar and wind.

“Considering there are so few options for solving the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable way, fusion energy is incredibly exciting since it takes its fuel from ordinary seawater,” Hesslow added.

Thankfully, a number of efforts to stabilize nuclear fusion are underway. For instance, a Canadian collective aims to replace fossil fuels with nuclear fusion by the 2030s. That timeline is possible, especially considering the progress made over the past 50 years in fusion energy, but it won’t be easy.

“Many believe it will work, but it’s easier to travel to Mars than it is to achieve fusion. You could say that we are trying to harvest stars here on Earth, and that can take time,” Hesslow explained. “It takes incredibly high temperatures, hotter than the center of the Sun, for us to successfully achieve fusion here on Earth. That’s why I hope research is given the resources needed to solve the energy issue in time.”

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NASA-Funded Company Wants to Redefine Space Travel With Fusion Rockets

Nuclear Powered Rockets

Princeton Satellite Systems, which is funded by NASA, has announced the possibility of fusion reactor rockets which could — according to the company’s president Michael Paluszek — “enable new and exciting science missions that are too expensive and difficult to do with today’s technology.” Such missions could include propelling spaceships towards planets and stars, exploring space deeper than we ever have before, and deflecting asteroids.

Fusion rockets are propelled by the same nuclear processes that power stars. They can produce more energy — and do so more efficiently — than traditional chemical propellant or ion drive designs. Princeton Satellite System’s design uses nuclear fusion by heating a mix of deuterium and helium-3 with low-frequency radio waves, then harnesses the energy produced with magnetic fields. This technique confines the resulting plasma in a ring. As the plasma spirals out of the ring, it can be directed towards the blasters.

While this system would prove expensive for bigger projects (around $ 20 billion), the smaller rocket — estimated to be 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in diameter and 4 to 8 meters (13 to 26 feet) long — would only cost about $ 20 million per generator; ten times cheaper than the larger model.

Cost aside, there are still two other significant obstacles: first, the system would emit so much radiation that it would preclude the propulsion of any spacecraft with humans aboard, and second, while one generator may only cost the relatively small sum of $ 20 million, each ship would have to contain multiple generators to ensure both the stability of the plasma, and to make them capable of achieving the speeds the rockets aspire to.

Other Projects on the Horizon

Space travel has become a trend among the world’s tech elite, with many big names in technology working to develop canny ways explore the final frontier further, ideally by sending humans into outer space to guide those expeditions.

Paul Allen recently revealed the world’s largest plane, which aims to take spacecraft to the atmosphere, thereby reducing the amount of energy required to launch spacecraft from Earth.

Elon Musk has had a series of successful test runs for reusable rockets, including the Dragon spacecraft’s second landing at the International Space Station. He plans to test the Falcon Heavy rocket, designed to take people to the moon, in the next few months.

Related to one of the fission rocket’s goals of transporting robots to make observations of never-before seen parts of the galaxy is NASA’s mission to ‘touch the sun’ with its Parker Solar Probe. The probe will investigate solar wind and gather more data on our closest star than we’ve ever had before.

Gaining a deeper understanding of and visiting space has never been closer in our reach. Ideas like these are endlessly exciting and may be a sign that we may be entering the golden age of space travel.

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GoPro Fusion with OverCapture could mark new age for videography

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At the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colo., last week, GoPro took the wraps off its Fusion spherical camera, a hardware and software technology package that, if executed effectively, could herald the beginning of a new age of videography.
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Apple’s latest tweet ads for iPad Pro tout Apple Pencil, A10X Fusion chip

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Continuing its lighthearted ad campaign based on user tweets, Apple has published a pair of new advertisements ahead of next week’s iPad Pro refresh, boasting about the capabilities of the new A10X Fusion chip and the lag-free Apple Pencil.
AppleInsider – Frontpage News