MSU is leading a $15 million project to make fusion power a reality

MSU is leading a $15 million project to make fusion power a reality

from Michigan State University Andrew Christlieb is leading a massive US Department of Energy project to help fulfill the unfulfilled promise of nuclear fusion. That promised? To create an unmatched source of affordable and sustainable energy.


Andrew Christlieb, MSU Foundation Professor

Christlieb, an MSU Foundation Professor in the College of Natural Science, is now the director of a Mathematical Multifaceted Integrated Capability Center (MMICC) supported with $15 million by the DOE. He is supported by researchers at eight other universities and national laboratories across the country. Together they are developing new mathematical and computational tools to better model the physics needed to understand, control and sustain fusion.

The MSU-led center is one of four new MMICCs announced by the DOE.

“MMICCs allow applied mathematics researchers working in large, collaborative teams to take a broader view of a problem,” said Barbara Helland, DOE associate science director for the Advanced Scientific Computing Research Program, in a current press release. “As a result of this holistic view, researchers develop solutions by building fundamental, multidisciplinary mathematical skills while considering existing and emerging computing capacities.”

“We will push the boundaries of what is mathematically and computationally possible,” says Christlieb, a professor at the Department of Mathematics and the Institute for Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering.

In addition to MSU’s expert contingent, the team includes collaborators from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Delaware, and University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and the University of Washington.

“We wonder how we deal with things like machine learning? How do we deal with bigger, more powerful computers? How do we deal with new mathematical algorithms?” says Christlieb. “We have this lofty goal of getting a bird’s-eye view of all these different pieces and understanding how they fit together to solve big problems.”

As you can imagine, pushing the boundaries of mathematics, computation and nuclear fusion simultaneously is fraught with complex engineering challenges.

Luckily, understanding the full picture of what this MMICC can deliver doesn’t require advanced math or sophisticated algorithms. In fact, everyone on this planet, whether they know it or not, already has an appreciation for the effects of fusion.

Use the power of the sun

What Christlieb and his colleagues are trying to do is power the planet using the same science that powers the sun: nuclear fusion. To that end, the team is working to use new computational tools and techniques to improve understanding of the plasmas needed to sustain fusion.

Red and orange plumes erupt from the sun's surface against a black background.

The sun, itself a giant ball of plasma, ejects a comparatively smaller clump of plasma. Photo credit: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

The Sun itself is a sphere composed mostly of plasma, a cloud of matter so hot that its atoms have begun to shed the electron mantles that surround their nuclei, or nuclei. Within the burning plasma, nuclei can collide and fuse together.

These fusion events release a lot of energy that keeps the plasma burning and enables subsequent fusion reactions. The Sun and its merger are therefore self-sustaining, like a vast fire that fuels itself, showering the solar system with light and warmth.

For decades, mankind has attempted to replicate what the sun does on a much smaller scale to meet the world’s energy needs. Scientists achieved their first fusion reaction in the 1930s.

In the nine decades since, however, researchers have yet to ignite self-sufficient reactions that reliably produce more energy than they consume. One of the hurdles was understanding the plasmas involved well enough to be able to control and optimize them.

By the early 2000s, plasma and fusion researchers had seen enough dead ends and false starts that many began to doubt that humans would ever realize this untapped potential. Including Christlieb’s supervisor.

“He advised me not to work on the Fusion. At the time, it seemed like the plasma community was lost, and fusion just wouldn’t produce energy,” says Christlieb. But during the 21st century things started to change and researchers brought new knowledge to the field.

“Technology that we thought was dead suddenly became more interesting,” says Christlieb.

With that, there is a new sense of optimism and urgency about the merger. In March of this year, the White House hosted a peak focuses on accelerating the development of fusion energy. There are also more than a dozen start-up companies in the US and Canada currently developing fusion-related technologies.

“Some of them are really exciting,” says Christlieb. “I genuinely believe fusion power is on the horizon.”

However, questions about plasmas are still big. That’s why the DOE is investing $15 million in a center that will help answer these questions.

“We really need to use our resources wisely and enable things that weren’t possible before,” says Luis Chacon, co-director of the new MMICC, which the team has dubbed the Center for Hierarchical and Robust Modeling of Non-Equilibrium Transport, or CHARMNET. Chacon is a leading expert in modeling plasmas for fusion in the theoretical department at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“You have to be ambitious. What we’ve proposed is a real departure from the current state of the art, and every time you do that it’s like jumping out of an airplane,” he says. “You hope the parachute opens and try to land in a good place.”

Teamwork makes the Plasma Dream work

With this analogy in mind, it’s easy to understand Chacon’s feelings as the project unfolds.

“It’s exhilaration mixed with adrenaline and a bit of ‘What the hell am I getting myself into?'” he says, which is a bit surprising given the quiet confidence with which he says it.

Part of that confidence comes from experience. Jumping into the unknown is what scientists do, he says. But another crucial factor is the team.

A computer rendering provides a glimpse of a model of an annular green, yellow, blue and red plasma. It is contained within a tokamak, shown as a spherical gray envelope with a cylindrical column at its centre.

A computer simulation of plasma in a device called a tokamak, one of the leading technologies in fusion energy development. Credits: Walter Guttenfelder/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Filippo Scotti/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

“The sheer quality of this team is tremendous. We found the best people we could find for this project,” says Chacon. Including Christlieb and Chacon, the team consists of 20 investigators and their teams.

Joining the academic team are Yingda Cheng, Huan Lei and Brian O’Shea from MSU; David Bortz and Stephen Becker from the University of Colorado-Boulder; Jingmei Qiu at the University of Delaware; Sigal Gottlieb of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth; and Jingwei Hu from the University of Washington.

The team’s national laboratory cohort includes Joshua Burby and Qi Tang of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Youngsoo Choi, Terry Haut, Jeffrey Hittinger, Lee Ricketson, and Paul Tranquilli of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Cory Hauck of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and John Jakeman and Timothy Wildey of Sandia National Laboratories.

“This is the biggest and most well-known project I’ve ever been a part of,” says Sandia’s Wildey, an expert in machine learning and uncertainty quantification. He is also a Spartan alumnus, graduating as part of the class of 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

“With the size and distribution alone – we are spread across nine different institutions – there will be challenges. But they are challenges that we look forward to,” says Wildey. “We have an absolutely great team. So we have successfully seized this opportunity and I believe that we will be successful with our project.”

Which begs the question, what does success look like and what makes it so difficult to achieve?

Taming the curse of dimensionality

Wildey succinctly summarizes the research team’s goals. The center was established to provide end-to-end computational approaches that enable fusion researchers to simulate plasmas quickly, completely and reliably enough to use the results to make important real-time decisions.

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