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article imageGoogle 'Optometrist Algorithm' brings us closer to fusion power

By Karen Graham     Jul 26, 2017 in Technology
Nuclear fusion, considered the holy grail of limitless energy production, may have moved a big step closer to becoming reality, thanks to a new computer algorithm.
In a paper published July 25, in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Tri Alpha Energy (TAE), the world's largest private fusion company, and Google have jointly furthered the understanding of physics and computational design, applying a new approach to solving highly complex problems regarding plasma behavior.
TAE and Google have a multi-year partnership that dates back to 2014. The two organizations joined forces in the hopes that machine learning algorithms could advance plasma research, bringing us closer to fusion power, a clean energy source. The complexity of the research into plasma, a gas in an ionized state, so hot that the atoms are blown apart into their constituent nuclei and electrons, led to TAE turning to Google for help.
In nuclear physics  nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei come close enoug...
In nuclear physics, nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei come close enough to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles (neutrons and/or protons). The difference in mass between the products and reactants is manifested as the release of large amounts of energy.
Kjerish (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Producing nuclear fusion
Producing nuclear fusion on Earth involves the fusion of a deuterium atom (an isotope of hydrogen, containing a single proton and neutron but no electron) with a tritium (a different isotope of hydrogen with one proton and two neutrons and two electrons outside) one, writes Digital Journal's science guy, Tim Sandle.
The enormous amount of data generated in the research had so many variables that TAE's researchers needed some kind of advanced computing networks to help wade through it all. But even Google didn't have all the computational resources needed, reports New Atlas.
After years of research and development  including development of multiple variations of C-2-style d...
After years of research and development, including development of multiple variations of C-2-style devices, TAE demonstrated sustained stable plasma performance in the C-2U device in June 2015, based on the use of neutral beams and electrical control of the boundary layer.
Tri Alpha Energy
"The reality is much more complicated," explains Ted Baltz, from Google's Accelerated Science Team, "as the ion temperature is three times larger than the electron temperature, so the plasma is far out of thermal equilibrium, also, the fluid approximation is totally invalid, so you have to track at least some of the trillion+ individual particles, so the whole thing is beyond what we know how to do even with Google-scale computer resources."
Fusing man and machine
Google's team came through with a solution, though. Fusing man and machine, so to speak, the solution is called the "Optometrist Algorithm." It takes it name from the person who does an eye examination. The algorithm sorts through a multitude of simulated settings that would keep the plasma under check.
A closer view of the C-20 device developed by Tri Alpha Energy.
A closer view of the C-20 device developed by Tri Alpha Energy.
Tri Alpha Energy
Human technicians can then select the best candidates for using in their experiments, rather than going through the time-consuming process of testing each one. "So we boil 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," says Baltz.
In the study published in Scientific Reports, The new algorithm unexpectedly gave the TAE research team a 50 percent reduction in energy loss rate and a concomitant increase in ion temperature and total plasma energy in its field-reversed configuration plasma generator.
"Results like this might take years to solve without the power of advanced computation to rapidly scale our understanding of the complex properties of plasma," says Michl Binderbauer, TAE's President, and Chief Technology Officer.
C-2U Divertor Vessel
Divertor vessels  which are located at both ends of the C-2U device  house the ...
C-2U Divertor Vessel Divertor vessels, which are located at both ends of the C-2U device, house the plasma guns and bias electrodes – the key instruments for plasma stability control.
Tri Alpha Energy
Tri Alpha Energy is not the only company involved in high profile fusion research. The UK's Tokamak ST40 reactor was fired up for the first time in April 2017 and should reach a temperature of 100 million degrees Centigrade sometimes next year, the temperature required to trigger nuclear fusion.
More about fusion power, Google, Tri Alpha Energy, Algorithm, machinelearning
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