• Approaching Challenges and Barriers to UK Nuclear Fusion Project: What is the role for Supercomputing and AI?
    Left to right: Rob Akers (UKAEA), Alison Kennedy (STFC Hartree Centre), Kate Royse (STFC Hartree Centre), Michaela Muruiano (Graphcore), Alex Titterton (Graphcore)
  • Staff from the Hartree Centre at ISC 2022

News & Views

Approaching Challenges and Barriers to UK Nuclear Fusion Project: What is the role for Supercomputing and AI?

Jun 22 2022

“Modelling the hugely complex, strongly coupled, multi-physics system that is a fusion powerplant is undeniably a simulation grand challenge – an endeavour that has long been heralded an 'exascale' challenge.” Rob Akers

A collaborative project between the UK Atomic Energy Authority UKAEA and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Hartree Centre is progressing into the second phase of a five-year plan that will help scientists develop viable fusion energy technologies through the use of supercomputing and artificial intelligence (AI) rather than via expensive, real world prototyping. Government funding of £220 million is being provided for the plan which will see UKAEA produce a conceptual design by 2024.

At last month’s International Supercomputing Conference 2022 held in Hamburg, Germany, exhibitors from the STFC Hartree Centre also announced a strategic partnership between STFC and Graphcore a provider of Intelligence Processing Unit (IPU) technology that is providing support for the project and other industry initiatives.

Providing a powerful and cleaner alternative

Fusion energy has the potential to be a revolutionary and limitless energy source that will help to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and tackle climate change. As part of the Government’s UK fusion Strategy set out in 2021, the UKAEA was tasked with responsibility for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) initiative -  the UK’s first prototype fusion energy plant which is scheduled to become operational in 2040. Five sites shortlisted for site development are: Ardeer (North Ayrshire); Goole (East Riding of Yorkshire); Moorside (Cumbria); Ratcliffe-on-Soar (Nottinghamshire) and Severn Edge (South Gloucestershire).

Facilitating this long-term development, last year also saw the establishment of a UK centre of excellence in extreme scale computing located at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory in the Liverpool City Region, where more than 30 staff are currently addressing challenges to fusion technologies through research projects including;

  • modelling and understanding plasma
  • modelling ‘digital twins’ of future fusion power plants.
  • developing prototype tools for advanced data management
  • using AI tools to give key insights, such as into machine control and uncertainty quantification.

AI is increasingly being used alongside more traditional high power computing techniques to run large-scale simulations in an accelerated timeframe. Technology developed by Graphcore is already being used on data created by the Large Hadron Collider.

Meeting great scientific endeavours

“The goal of delivering clean fusion energy is one of the great scientific endeavours of our time. Breakthrough technologies in every field are being deployed in pursuit of this goal – including the use of artificial intelligence for simulation,” said Professor Kate Royce, Director of the Hartree Centre.

 “We look forward to working with Graphcore in such an exciting field where accelerating progress could mean that this transformative new way of generating energy is available to everyone, sooner rather than later.”

Rob Akers, Head of Advanced Computing at UKAEA added: “Modelling the hugely complex, strongly coupled, multi-physics system that is a fusion powerplant is undeniably a simulation grand challenge – an endeavour that has long been heralded an 'exascale' challenge.”

“Only now, as the world’s first exascale machines become available, and through the convergence of AI methods and traditional HPC algorithms, is digitally twinning of fusion powerplant technology becoming a realistic prospect. Graphcore’s IPU systems are a tantalising glimpse of what a second generation of exascale machines might look like. We are incredibly excited to be working with both STFC Hartree Centre and Graphcore to engineer a transformation around our predictive capability for fusion powerplant design.”

Access to IPU technology will be provided via the IPU Cloud service offered by G-Core Labs, a European Cloud and EDGE provider. Atos, a global leader in AI and HPC technology, will work closely with G-Core Labs, Graphcore and the Hartree Centre’s researcher team as a systems integrator.

As part of the strategic partnership Graphcore will provide extensive technology training (including workshops), while STFC will share guidance and feedback related to the performance of IPU systems in speeding up workloads and accelerating research at the Hartree Centre.

Partnerships to support research and innovation

STFC, Graphcore, and Atos will also explore further partnerships to support the UK’s exascale computing strategy, which aims to provide appropriate and ambitious compute capabilities for diverse research and innovation communities.

“Atos is delighted to be working with Graphcore and G-Core Labs to help provide STFC with advanced AI compute to support their vital work on nuclear fusion energy, and beyond. This sort of essential, world-changing research exemplifies the best of what converged AI and HPC can enable,” said Andy Grant, VP, Global Head of HPC, AI and Quantum Sales, Atos.

The partnership calls for STFC, Graphcore and Atos to jointly explore industrial partnerships and engagements—including though the newly-established Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation (HNCDI), which provides a supportive environment for businesses to acquire the skills, knowledge and technical capability required to adopt digital technologies like supercomputing, data analytics, AI, and quantum computing.

Paul Methven, STEP Programme Director at UKAEA, said that the short-listing of sites for the STEP facility had helped to increase focus and the push forward with the design and delivery of what was hoped to be the world’s first fusion power plant prototype, with the final selection expected towards the end of 2022.

“Through the next phase of assessment, we look forward to working with the shortlisted sites and local communities to gain a more in-depth understanding of the socio-economic, commercial and technical conditions associated with each site, before we make our final recommendations to the Secretary of State.”

In addition to its initial funding commitment to STEP, the government has already invested £184 million for new fusion facilities, infrastructure and apprenticeships at Culham Science Centre near Oxford and at Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

Earlier this month the government published a green paper on the future of fusion energy regulation and a separate Fusion Strategy.

More information online

About Hartree Centre. More information online

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