The quest for sustainable and clean energy sources has gained significant momentum in recent years. With the UK government's ambitious target of achieving a net-zero economy by 2050, efforts are being made on multiple fronts to ramp up renewable energy availability on the UK grid. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the University of Cambridge have joined forces with Dell Technologies and Intel in a ground-breaking collaboration. Their shared goal is to leverage supercomputing resources and propel green fusion power onto the energy grid within the next two decades.
Harnessing the Power of Fusion
The UKAEA, among other organisations, is seeking alternative forms of green power to address the pressing need for sustainable energy. Fusion energy, though a notoriously challenging scientific and engineering endeavour, holds immense potential. It has the capability to provide a baseload power, complementing renewable sources like wind and solar. Recognising the significance of fusion energy, the UK government has invested over £700 million to establish the UK as a global hub for fusion energy research and development.
The Fusion Energy Generation Process
Fusion energy generation involves the controlled fusion of hydrogen isotopes, resulting in the creation of helium and the release of energy that can be harnessed to generate electricity. The UKAEA aims to replicate this process in power plants. However, the main challenge lies in the extreme temperatures required to initiate the fusion reaction, which are ten times hotter than the core of the sun. Overcoming this hurdle would unlock a clean, greenhouse gas-free energy source with minimal risk of radioactive by-products.
Designing in the Virtual World
To address the time constraints associated with traditional test-based design methods, the UKAEA is employing the use of supercomputing and artificial intelligence (AI). Through collaboration with Dell, Intel, and the University of Cambridge, the UKAEA has developed a prototype design for a fusion power plant named STEP, located in Nottinghamshire. A digital twin of the site has been created, hosted in a virtual environment called the "industrial metaverse." This collaboration aims to leverage supercomputers and AI to ensure the realisation of an on-grid fusion power plant by the 2040s.
Empowering Scientific Advancements
The partnership between the UKAEA, the University of Cambridge, Dell, and Intel brings together world-class research and innovation. The collaborative effort supports the UK government's aspirations of becoming a scientific and technological superpower. The focus is on making the next generation of high-performance computers (HPC) accessible, practical, and vendor-agnostic. This collaboration is a testament to the commitment and expertise of the involved parties, striving towards a common goal.
Large-scale supercomputing projects, such as this one, come with their own set of cost and skill-related challenges. The University of Cambridge, a long-standing partner of the UKAEA, emphasises the importance of collaboration between hardware providers, scientists, and application developers. This holistic approach ensures the efficient design and deployment of supercomputers. To enhance performance, the collaboration looks to Intel's new data centre GPU Max technology, which provides a significant boost in performance per watt. Open-source technologies are integral to the project, ensuring flexibility and preventing vendor lock-in.
Accessible and Scalable Supercomputing
To maximise the project's impact, the collaborative effort aims to make these supercomputers accessible to a broad range of scientists and engineers. Developing a novel cloud-native operating system environment called Scientific OpenStack, in partnership with UK SME StackHPC, is a crucial step. This middleware layer facilitates the democratisation of supercomputing technologies, enabling even those unfamiliar with the field to leverage its potential. By using open standard hardware and open-source software implementations, the collaboration promotes transparency and encourages knowledge sharing.
The collaboration between the UKAEA, the University of Cambridge, Dell Technologies, and Intel represents a major milestone in advancing green fusion power. By combining their expertise, resources, and cutting-edge technologies, they are driving progress towards a net-zero future. This ambitious endeavour aims to tap into fusion energy's immense potential to provide clean, sustainable power. With the goal of an on-grid fusion power plant within reach by the 2040s, the collaboration paves the way for a greener and more sustainable energy landscape in the United Kingdom and beyond.