Gaming Graphics Card Allows Faster, More Precise Control Of Fusion Energy Experiments

UW researchers devised a way for controlling plasma generation in their prototype fusion reactor that makes use of a gaming graphics card. Here’s a look inside the reactor: Plasma (bright currents) enters the gadget from the injectors on the top and creates a ring around the two cones seen in the center (view here from the side of the ring). These plasma currents are extremely fast — this video is barely three-thousandths of a second long. The University of Washington is to blame.

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Nuclear fusion has the potential to provide a safe, clean, and plentiful energy source.

Plasmas, liquids made up of charged particles, are heated to extremely high temperatures during this process, which also occurs in the sun so that the atoms fuse together and release a lot of energy.

The dynamic nature of plasmas, which must be regulated to attain the temperatures required for fusion, is one obstacle in carrying out this reaction on Earth. Now, researchers at the University of Washington have created a way that capitalizes on developments in the computer game industry: they utilize a gaming graphics card, or GPU, to operate the control system for their prototype fusion reactor.

Gaming graphics card

“You need this speed and precision with plasmas because their dynamics are so complicated and evolve at such high speeds.” “When you can’t keep up with them or predict their response, plasmas have an unsettling propensity of moving extremely fast in the other direction,” said co-author Chris Hansen, a senior UW researcher in the air and space Space Department.

“Most apps attempt to operate in an area where the system is rather static.” “All you have to do is put things back where they belong,” Hansen explained. “In our laboratory, we’re working on ways to keep the plasma active in more dynamic systems where we want it.”

The UW team’s experimental reactor creates magnetic fields solely within its own plasma, allowing it to be smaller and less expensive than previous reactors that require external magnetic fields.

“By adding magnetic fields to plasmas, you can move and manipulate them without ‘touching’ the plasma,” Hansen explained. “For example, the northern lights arise when plasma from the sun flows into the earth’s magnetic field, which traps it and permits it to travel towards the poles.” When charged particles enter the atmosphere, they emit light.

The prototype reactor developed by the University of Washington team heats plasma to around 1 million degrees Celsius (1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit). That’s far less than the 150 million degrees Celsius necessary for the merger, but it’s hot enough to test the theory.

The plasma develops in three injectors on the gadget, which spontaneously mix and organize themselves into a donut-shaped item, similar to a smoke ring. These plasmas only last a few thousandths of a second, so the team required a fast means to regulate what was going on.

Until now, researchers have programmed their control systems using slower or less user-friendly methods. As a result, the team chose an NVIDIA Tesla GPU intended for machine learning applications.

“The GPU provides us with access to enormous processing capacity,” said lead author Kyle Morgan, an undersea scientist in the aerospace division. “While the computer gaming industry and, more lately, machine learning have propelled this level of speed, this graphics card also gives a pretty fantastic foundation for managing plasma.”

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Two pictures of the team’s prototype reactor show the three injectors with (right) and without (left) the circuits required to create magnetized plasmas in each injector (marked in green on the right). Each of these circuits is accurately controlled by the GPU, allowing researchers to fine-tune the plasma generation in each injector. Washington State University

The team was able to refine the entry of plasmas into the reactor with the help of the graphics card, giving the researchers a closer look at what happens when the plasmas are formed – and possibly allowing the team to create longer-living plasmas that are closer to the conditions work required for controlled fusion performance.