IAEA launches challenge on materials for fusion

11 June 2018

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has launched a competition to find "innovative ways to visualise, analyse and explore" simulations of different materials that can be used to build fusion reactors. Such materials would subject to extremely high temperatures and energetic particles.

The IAEA said the results of the challenge will be useful for the development of a demonstration fusion power plant. Such a plant would show that controlled nuclear fusion can generate net electrical power and mark the final step before the construction of a commercial fusion power plant. This would represent the next stage after ITER, the world's largest fusion experiment under way, which is expected to demonstrate by the late 2030s that fusion can be used to generate net energy. It is not part of ITER's mission to convert this energy into electricity.

"Harnessing commercially-viable fusion power involves serious technological challenges that are expected to take many years to solve, including protecting the wall and other components of the reactor vessel from extremely high temperatures and energetic particles," the agency said.

Christian Hill, head of the IAEA's atomic and molecular data unit, noted that obtaining a very high temperature in a reactor is one of the required conditions for fusion to take place.

"At such high temperatures - ten times higher than at the core of our Sun - matter exists only as plasma, which must be confined by a magnetic field to keep it from damaging the reactor walls," he said.

Candidate materials for use in fusion reactors include tungsten, steel and beryllium, the IAEA said.

"Since experiments on physical samples are difficult and expensive to carry out, scientists have turned to computational models to simulate the behaviour of a material," it said. "Different metals or compositions, impact energies and temperatures can be explored [using molecular dynamics] and can help with the search for an effective first wall material."

The IAEA is inviting "experts and self-taught enthusiasts" to analyse simulations of the damage that can be caused to the reactor wall by the energetic neutrons released by the fusion reaction.

Participants are requested to submit ideas that take one or more of the following into consideration: novel software for visualising the material damage represented by the simulation data files in a way that aids qualitative and quantative assessment; new software tools to rapidly and reliably identify, classify and quantify new patterns and structures of particular kinds in the data sets; or, efficient algorithms to depict and summarise the statistical distribution of atom displacements and to analyse the effect of impact energy on this distribution.

Hill said, "By participating in this challenge, both specialists and non-specialists will be helping scientists to better understand how a material responds to high-energy events and will assist the development of a future fusion reactor."

The deadline for submitting ideas is 14 July.

The winner, who will be announced on 15 August, will receive EUR5000 (USD5894) and be invited to the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna to present their ideas.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News