Fusion power has long been an ambition of some of the world’s top scientists. In theory, a ‘controlled’ fusion reaction could provide huge quantities of energy with zero emissions and no risk of a nuclear meltdown. A hydrogen bomb is an example of an ‘uncontrolled’ nuclear fusion reaction.
The key difference between the kind of fusion reactor we’re talking about and what happens in a nuclear power plant of the kind that already exists is that the latter splits atoms whereas the former joins them. The problem is that for decades the tantalising prospect of progress towards developing a working fusion reaction has come little closer. Now a company called TAE Technologies thinks that the latest technology in the world of AI could hold the key to fusion energy finally becoming a genuine possibility.
TAE Technologies, established 20 years ago, has established a partnership with Google. It is believed the tech giant’s ‘Optometrist’ algorithm can help identify the hugely complex set of conditions that controlled fusion would require. The process involves colliding lightweight particles into each other at temperatures high enough to mean that they fuse when they do so. This produces a new element and the by-product of the process is a release of energy. A lot of energy.
Different variables of how to achieve this fusion have been attempted. TAE’s technique is to twist plasma inside a linear machine the company has dubbed ‘Norman’. With each ‘shot’ of plasma Norman makes, the scientists that work on the project adjust thousands of variables in their quest for the perfect recipe. The potential number of these variables is mind-boggling and has been proven to be far beyond even the keenest scientific minds. But there is hope that the Optometrist will be able to keep track on them and finally isolate the conditions necessary for a controlled fusion reaction to be achieved.
The TAE Technologies team are still some way away from reaching their holy grail and still face a plethora of challenges. But there is now optimism. Erik Trask, the project’s lead scientist explained to The Verge:
“Now, we think that we have found a way to do it, but we have to show it. That’s the hard part.”
If they manage with the help of ‘Norman’ and ‘the Optometrist’, controlled fusion reactor power plants could prove revolutionary in the battle against the climate change being caused by emissions.