TECHNOLOGY

Fast ignition for fusion energy closer after supercomputer's record simulations

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) pushed the boundaries of the largest and second-fastest supercomputer in the world to perform record simulations that can help model the interaction of ultra-powerful lasers with plasma to "spark" fusion energy, the lab announced yesterday.

Frederico Fiuza, a physicist and Lawrence fellow at LLNL, was able to perform record simulations using all 1,572,864 cores of Sequoia, the first machine to exceed 1 million computational cores, LLNL said. High-performance computers such as Sequoia enable special codes to follow the simultaneous evolution of tens of billions to trillions of individual particles in highly complex systems. This is an order of magnitude larger than the previous largest simulations of fast ignition, according to LLNL.

"This means that a simulation that would take an entire year to perform on a medium-size cluster of 4,000 cores can be performed in a single day. Alternatively, problems 400 times greater in size can be simulated in the same amount of time," Fiuza said in a statement. "The combination of this unique supercomputer and this highly efficient and scalable code is allowing for transformative research," he said.

Fiuza used the simulations to study how lasers capable of delivering more than a petawatt of power (a million billion watts) in a fraction of a billionth of a second can heat compressed deuterium and tritium (DT) fuel to temperatures exceeding the 50 million degrees Celsius that are needed to initiate fusion reactions and release net energy, according to the lab.

This method is known as "fast ignition." LLNL is also pursuing another method to fire up fusion energy at the National Ignition Facility that would use simultaneous compression and ignition of a spherical fuel capsule in an implosion, much like in a diesel engine, without the laser interaction. This is known as the "central hot spot" scenario.

Fusion offers the hope of a nearly inexhaustible source of power with no emissions, threat of a nuclear meltdown or long-term radioactive waste. The energy source has acquired a reputation of being the most promising form of energy that is always a few decades and billions of dollars away from commercialization -- with ignition being one of the key sticking points (Greenwire, March 13).

The LLNL project is part of the Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Science Program. The Sequoia supercomputer is a National Nuclear Security Administration machine, developed and fielded as part of NNSA's Advanced Simulation and Computing Program. Sequoia is preparing to move to classified computing in support of stockpile stewardship, the lab said.

Bill Brinkman, acting undersecretary for DOE's Office of Science, told House appropriators earlier this month that the U.S. lead in supercomputing was in danger, especially if the longer, lower funding under sequestration stays in place.

"Today, our historical leadership is being challenged by the E.U., China and Japan, all of which have set goals to be the first to achieve exascale-level computing, which will improve current computing capabilities 1,000-fold," Brinkman said. "The reductions in ASCR funding necessitated by the sequester will impact our ability to keep pace with the rest of the world."

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