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Industrial Metaverse essential for UK fusion energy development

  • Collaboration between the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), Dell Technologies, Intel and the University of Cambridge to advance the development of the UK’s prototype fusion powerplant
  • Scientists and engineers will access supercomputers and AI to inform and accelerate engineering designs of the plant
  • UKAEA plans to deliver STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) to provide electricity to grid in the 2040s

The engineering designs of UKAEA’s prototype fusion energy plant, STEP, sited in Nottinghamshire, will be developed in a highly immersive and connected virtual environment, known as the ‘Industrial Metaverse’.

The collaboration between UKAEA, Dell Technologies, Intel and the University of Cambridge will explore how supercomputers – capable of making up to one quintillion calculations per second – and AI technologies with advanced predictive capabilities, can deliver a ‘digital twin’ of the STEP design.

The digital twin will enable STEP’s scientists and engineers to create a robust design in the virtual world to ensure ecosystem readiness, value for money and to help STEP achieve its goal of delivering electricity to the grid in the 2040s.

Exascale computing – the next generation of computing technology – will provide powerful analytics to test STEP’s initial concepts.

The collaboration brings together world-class research and innovation and supports the Government’s ambitions to make the UK a scientific and technological superpower. It aims to make the next generation of high performance computers accessible, practical to use and vendor agnostic.

Fusion energy promises to potentially offer a safer, low carbon and more sustainable part of the world’s future energy supply.

The goal of future fusion powerplants is to emit no greenhouse gases and they are not expected to have long-lived, high-level radioactive waste associated with nuclear fission.

Development of fusion energy presents one of the world’s most difficult scientific and engineering challenges. This includes the design of advanced materials that can withstand extreme conditions inside a fusion powerplant to confine a super-hot gas, known as plasma, to produce energy.

Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary, Grant Shapps, said:

“Britain has long been at the forefront of world-leading – and world-changing – scientific breakthroughs and innovations. And fusion energy is no different.

“The world needs fusion energy like never before, has the potential to provide a ‘baseload’ power, underpinning renewables like wind and solar, which is why we’re investing over £700 million to make the UK a global hub for fusion energy.

“This new collaboration with our world-renowned universities and tech companies ensures the UK solidifies its reputation as a science superpower, turning science fiction to science fact, with the potential for cheaper, cleaner and, crucially, more secure energy.”

Dr Rob Akers, Head of Advanced Computing, UKAEA, said: “Exascale supercomputing, and the advent of the ‘AI era’ are essential and potentially transformative milestones that will help the UK to ensure STEP achieves its mission to connect fusion power to the national grid in the early 2040’s. These powerful technologies will allow us to embed robustness, flexibility, and resilience into the STEP design.

“I firmly believe the future of sustainable energy will rely upon supercomputing. The world has an urgent need to provide energy security and combat climate change. This is a journey we must embark upon together, delivering access and capability to all those who will be instrumental in delivering commercial fusion energy.”

Adam Roe, EMEA HPC Technical Director, Intel, said: “Planning for the commercialisation of fusion power requires organisations like UKAEA to utilise extreme amounts of computational resources and artificial intelligence for simulations. These HPC workloads may be performed using a variety of different architectures, which is why open software solutions that optimise performance needs can lend portability to code that isn’t available in closed, proprietary systems. Overall, advanced hardware and software can make the journey to commercial fusion power lower risk and accelerated – a key benefit on the path to sustainable energy.”

Dr Paul Calleja, Director, Research Computing Services, University of Cambridge, said: “UKAEA’s moon-shot mission to put clean fusion energy on the UK grid in the 2040’s is a hugely ambitious goal, needing equally ambitious advance computing and AI technologies to fuel the virtual engineering effort to create a complete digital reality of the power plant that can be developed and tested in silicon, which greatly accelerates the process. To this end the Cambridge Open ZettaScale Lab in partnership with Intel, Dell, UKAEA and a team of HPC experts from across UKRI have been working together for the past two years on a world leading co-design activity called “Project Dawn” to design and prototype a candidate UK exascale class converged AI & simulation GPU/CPU supercomputer, with the computation power capable of helping UKAEA meet it its vast computational requirements. Project Dawn is closely aligned with the recommendations of the recent UK “Future of Compute Review” which is targeting over a billion pounds investment to develop the UK AI and Exascale computing ecosystem.”

Tariq Hussain, Head of UK Public Sales, Dell Technologies, said: “Working with world-class researchers at the UKAEA and Cambridge University to tackle one of the most complex engineering challenges requires world-class technology and digital infrastructure capable of meeting the most demanding workloads.

“This project demonstrates the crucial role supercomputing will play in accelerating the energy transition, advancing decarbonisation and ensuring energy security.”

Fusion energy has the potential to provide dispatchable ‘baseload’ power, complementing renewable energy sources like wind and solar to help decarbonise energy systems.

The collaboration will allow scientists and engineers throughout STEP’s entire supply chain to perform the advanced research and development necessary to help meet the world’s growing energy demand while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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