April 13, 2024

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Scientists say they can use artificial intelligence to solve a major problem in the search for virtually unlimited clean energy

Scientists say they can use artificial intelligence to solve a major problem in the search for virtually unlimited clean energy

(CNN) — Scientists working in the field of fusion energy say they have found a way to overcome one of their biggest challenges yet: using artificial intelligence.


Nuclear fusion has been hailed for decades as an almost unlimited source of clean energy, in what could be a revolutionary solution to the climate crisis. But experts have only achieved and maintained fusion energy for a few seconds, and many obstacles remain, including the instability of the highly complex process.

There are several ways to achieve fusion power, but the most common is to use various types of hydrogen as input fuel and raise temperatures to unusually high levels in a donut-shaped machine, known as a tokamak, to create plasma, a state of nuclear fusion. Soup-like substance.

But that plasma needs to be controlled and is very susceptible to “rupturing” and escaping the machine's powerful magnetic fields, which are designed to keep the plasma present.

On Wednesday, researchers from Princeton University and Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Nature reports that they have found a way to use artificial intelligence to predict these potential instabilities and prevent them from occurring in real time.

The team conducted its experiments at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego, and found that their AI controller could predict potential plasma ruptures up to 300 milliseconds in advance. Without this intervention, the fusion reaction would have ended abruptly.

A Princeton University spokesperson said: “The experiments lay the foundation for using artificial intelligence to solve a wide range of plasma instabilities, which have long hampered fusion energy.”

Egemen Kulemen, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University and one of the study's authors, says the results are “undoubtedly” a step forward in the field of nuclear fusion.

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“This is one of the big obstacles – the outages – and the point is that any reactor can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for years without any problem,” Colemen told CNN. “These types of outages and instabilities are going to be a big problem, so developing solutions like this increases their confidence in our ability to operate these machines without any problems.”

Fusion energy is the process that powers the Sun and other stars, and experts have been trying to perfect it on Earth for decades. This is achieved when two atoms that normally repel each other are forced to fuse. It is the opposite of nuclear fission – the type most used today – which is based on splitting atoms.

Earlier this month, scientists and engineers near the English city of Oxford set a new nuclear fusion energy record, sustaining 69 megajoules of fusion energy for five seconds, using just 0.2 milligrams of fuel. This is enough to supply about 12 thousand homes at the same time.

But the experiment consumed more energy than it generated. However, another team in California was able to produce a net amount of fusion energy in December 2022, in a process called “ignition.” Since then, the team has repeated the ignition process three times.

Despite promising progress, nuclear fusion energy is still a long way from being commercially available, beyond the years when deep, sustained reductions in global-warming pollution are required to avoid the worsening effects of the climate crisis.

Scientists say that reducing pollution is necessary this decade.

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CNN's Rachel Ramirez contributed to this report.