The harnessing of fusion energy has become something of a holy grail – sought after by many without much apparent progress. It is the energy process that ‘powers’ the stars and if we could reproduce it on earth in a controlled environment then it would offer almost unlimited energy with very low environmental costs. However, understanding the science is an enormous challenge and the engineering task to design, build and operate a fusion-fuelled power station is even greater. The engineering difficulties originate from the combination of two factors: the emergent behaviour present in the complex system and that it has never been done before. Engineering has achieved lots of firsts but usually through incremental development; however, with fusion energy it would appear that it will only work when all of the required conditions are present. In other words, incremental development is not viable and we need everything ready before flicking the switch. Not surprisingly, engineers are cautious about flicking switches when they are not sure what will happen. Yet, the potential benefits of getting it right are huge; so, we would really like to do it. Hence, the holy grail status: much sought after and offering infinite abundance.
Digital twins are a combination of computational models and real-world data describing the form, function and condition of a system [see ‘Can you trust your digital twin?‘ on November 23rd 2016]. They are beginning to transform design processes for complex systems in a number of industries. We have been working on a proof-of-concept study for a digital reactor in fission energy based on the Integrated Nuclear Digital Environment (INDE) . The research has been conducted by the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) at the University of Liverpool together with partners from industry and national laboratories with funding from the UK Government for nuclear innovation. In parallel, I having been working with a colleague at the University of Manchester and partners at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy on the form of a digital environment for fusion energy taking account of the higher order of complexity, the scale of resources, the integration of novel technologies, and the likely diversity and distribution of organisations involved in designing, building and operating a fusion powerplant. We have had positive interactions with the regulatory authorities during the digital fission reactor project and the culture of enabling-regulation  offers an opportunity for a new paradigm in the regulation of fusion powerplants. Hence, we propose in a new PhD project to investigate the potential provided by the integration of digital twins with the regulatory environment to enable innovation in the design of fusion powerplants.
The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research. For more information following this link.
Last month I was at the Photomechanics 2018 conference in Toulouse in France. Photomechanics is the science of using photons to measure deformation and displacements in anything, from biological cells to whole engineering structures, such as bridges or powerstations [see for example: ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ posted on November 18th, 2015]. I am interested in the challenges created by the extremes of scale and environmental conditions; although on this occasion we presented our research on addressing the challenges of industrial applications, in the EU projects INSTRUCTIVE [see ‘Instructive update‘ on October 4th, 2017] and MOTIVATE [see ‘Brave New World‘ posted on January 10th, 2018].
It was a small conference without parallel sessions and the organisers were more imaginative than usual in providing us with opportunities for interaction. At the end of first day of talks, we went on a guided walking tour of old Toulouse. At the end of second day, we went to the Toulouse Aerospace Museum and had the chance to go onboard Concorde.
I stayed an extra day for an organised tour of the Airbus A380 assembly line. Only the engine pylons are made in Toulouse. The rest of the 575-seater plane is manufactured around Europe and arrives in monthly road convoys after travelling by sea to local ports. The cockpit, centre, tail sections of the double-deck fuselage travel separately on specially-made trucks with each 45m long wing section following on its own transporter. It takes about a month to assemble these massive sections. This is engineering on a huge scale performed with laser precision (laser systems are used to align the sections). The engines are also manufactured elsewhere and transported to Toulouse to be hung on the wings. The maximum diameter of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, being attached to the plane we saw, is approximately same as the fuselage diameter of an A320 airplane.
Once the A380 is assembled and its systems tested, then it is flown to another Airbus factory in Germany to be painted and for the cabin to be fitted out to the customer’s specification. In total, 11 Airbus factories in France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom are involved in producing the A380; this does not include the extensive supply chain supporting these factories. As I toured the assembly line and our guide assailed us with facts and figures about the scale of the operation, I was thinking about why the nuclear power industry across Europe could not collaborate on this scale to produce affordable, identical power stations. Airbus originated from a political decision in the 1970s to create a globally-competitive European aerospace industry that led to a collaboration between national manufacturers which evolved into the Airbus company. One vision for fusion energy is a globally dispersed manufacturing venture that would evolve from the consortium that is currently building the ITER experiment and planning the DEMO plant. However, there does not appear to be any hint that the nuclear fission industry is likely to follow the example of the European aerospace industry to create a globally-competitive industry producing massive pieces of engineering within a strictly regulated environment.
There was no photography allowed at Airbus so today’s photograph is of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse.
When I was writing about cosmic heat death a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ posted on November 2nd, 2016], I implied that our sun would expire on a shorter timescale of about 4 to 5 billion years but without mentioning what we expect to happen. The gravitational field associated with every piece of matter is proportional to the mass of the piece of matter and inversely proportional to distance from its centre. The size of the sun implies it should collapse under its own gravitational forces, except that the fusion of hydrogen in its core causes an outwards heat transfer, which prevents this from happening. The sun remains a sphere of hot gases with diameter of about 864,000 miles by ‘burning’ hydrogen. When the hydrogen runs out, the gravitational field will take over and the sun is expected to collapse to a 30,000 mile diameter ball of atoms and free electrons, or a white dwarf.
These are all spontaneous processes and so the total entropy must increase although there are some local reductions. The heat dissipated following the fusion of two hydrogen nuclei generates more entropy in the surroundings than the local reduction caused by the fusion. The collapse to white dwarf would appear to represent a substantial reduction of entropy of the sun because the atomic particles are crushed together. However, this is countered by the release of photons to the surroundings which ensures that the entropy of the surroundings increases sufficiently to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics.
Isaac Asimov, The roving mind: a panoramic view of fringe science, technology, and the society of the future, London: Oxford University Press, 1987.