With climate change accelerating and fossil fuel supplies proving increasingly contentious, ensuring a secure supply of clean energy is top-of-mind for many researchers, companies and governments. Fusion energy — which is zero-carbon and low-radioactivity — has long been the Holy Grail in this quest, but has (thus far) not been successfully scaled for production, suffering from high energy input needs and general instability of the delicate fusion reaction.
Now, as Nvidia ramps up its Omniverse tool for digital twins — physically and photographically realistic simulated duplicates of real-world objects and environments — at least one research team has been wondering: could Omniverse be used to assist in fusion reactor design?
This was the subject of a session at Nvidia’s GTC22 presented by Lee Margetts, a professor at the University of Manchester and chair of digital engineering for nuclear fusion for the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).
“The basic idea is that we have to heat up hydrogen to very high temperatures, and then a fusion reaction occurs,” Margetts explained. “The outputs of that are helium — which is waste — and energy and neutrons. So this heats up water, which turns the water into steam and drives a steam turbine in exactly the same way as a gas- or coal-fired power station.”
The problem, of course: fusion currently requires much more energy input than it produces energy output. But research teams have made substantial headway on fusion energy recently, from a UK-based team that just last month doubled the world record for energy extracted from a fusion reaction to the much larger fusion reactor, ITER, that is under construction in France.
Margetts said that while there are many projects in the works to support ITER, “the most relevant program to this presentation is STEP,” which stands for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production program. “This is an initiative that aims to deliver a prototype fusion energy plant sometime before 2040. … In order to deliver that program, [we need] a revolution in the way that we carry out engineering.”
This, he said, is where Omniverse could help.
The role of digital twins in fusion reactor design
“The challenges of developing a reactor are immense,” Margetts said. “There are many different components, and we have to take into account lots of different areas of physics and engineering. And each of these, if we make a design change in one system, this has a knock-on effect on other systems. Now, this may sound like science fiction, but it would be really great if the design team could work together in a real-time simulation environment considering the design of the whole machine rather than individual subcomponents.”
“This may be realized by disruptive technologies like the Nvidia Omniverse, in concert with exascale computing and artificial intelligence,” he continued. “The latter could help us build … surrogate models of different components and subassemblies so that we could simulate the whole machine.”
Margetts compared the fusion reactor design process to film production and video game design.
“There are a number of common business drivers that each of these industries share,” he said. “The need for increased realism; the desire to support a large team of people working on the same project; and the pressure to deliver a product in a short period of time. And this brings us to the Omniverse, because what the marketing says is that the Omniverse offers improved realism; it has support for managing teams and assets; and through a codesign of rendering tools … there is an opportunity for real-time collaboration.”
But, of course, using Omniverse for fusion reactor design meant conducting a lot of testing — and, Margetts said, “in order to evaluate this from the point of view of engineering, we needed some funding to have a look.” So the team applied for and received funding from the UKAEA’s Fusion Industry Challenges program: £117,000 (~$154,000) for a six-month project to evaluate Omniverse for digital engineering of fusion reactors.
Evaluating Omniverse for fusion reactor design
The goal, Margetts explained, was to evaluate Omniverse in terms of four key questions: was it easy to add extensions for scientific software? Could the team create a digital copy of an existing plant? Were there benefits for robotic maintenance? Could they extract key information from images of plasma? Each of these played on different elements of Omniverse, from the integration of open source tools to GPU-driven tools aimed at photorealism.
GEANT4 in action. Image courtesy of the researchers.
First, they integrated GEANT4, a software package for simulating the path of particles through solid matter that fusion researchers use to simulate the path of neutrons through a fusion reactor. “What we managed to do in a very lightweight way in a very short project is to extend the Omniverse to use this simulation framework with very little coding,” Margetts said.
Vis-a-vis collaboration, he continued, the status quo was lots of engineers using lots of different software packages and collaborating offline. “It becomes very difficult to have a good picture of the status of the design of the whole reactor,” he said.
By way of contrast, another researcher on the project, Muhammad Omer, showed a demo of the interactive process as simulated through Omniverse. “We can see three different engineers working on three different components of a reactor in three different packages from three different locations,” Omer said, explaining that Omniverse helped them to achieve photorealism using Nvidia’s RTX capabilities and that they could easily compare different design options for a component within Omniverse.
Multiple engineers using different tools collaborating on fusion reactor design via Omniverse. Image courtesy of the researchers.
Then: robotics. “Within the reactor, it’s not a very nice place for human beings, and so robotic arms are used to perform maintenance,” Margetts said. “The long-going research activity is to have a look at ways of automating or ways of enabling the robot to make its own decisions. One way is to look at digital twins.” He showed a juxtaposition of a real assembly with real robots and a digital mock-up of the same scene. “For a start, the Omniverse offers a lot of different capabilities for robotics simulation and handling, and this is all already integrated and available,” he said, explaining that if Lidar, cameras and other sensor capabilities were implemented in both the real-life robots and the Omniverse robots, the benefits could be immense.
Focusing on the cameras, Margetts said that cameras within the fusion reactor could be used to offer researchers a live feed of the plasma, but that it was often confined to a single feed. “The question is, could we use that single feed to gain information about what’s going on in the plasma as a whole?”
“Scientists at the UK Atomic Energy Authority in collaboration with Imperial College London have been developing algorithms to create synthetic visualizations of plasma so that they could train neural networks to make decisions as to how to control the device or the fusion reaction,” he continued. And Omniverse, he said, could help by simulating “very accurately what a camera in the real device might be seeing,” helping to train those neural networks.
First impressions and what’s next
Overall, Margetts and his colleagues were impressed by Omniverse’s promise for fusion reactor design. “We’ve completed our phase one evaluation of the Omniverse and we’re very happy and very delighted about what we’ve seen. We believe it’s got great potential as a platform for digital engineering. What we’re hoping is that the UK Atomic Energy Authority will select our project for the next phase and invite us to submit a proposal.”
For that second phase, the researchers hope to build a prototype design platform and create digital twins of the CHIMERA facility at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and a robotic arm, among other goals.
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