fusion energy reactor

Laser-welding ‘robotic snake’ brings fusion power closer to reality

Image credit: Dreamstime

A laser-welding ‘robotic snake’ that can operate inside the pipework of fusion energy powerplants has been developed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

The £2.7m project has taken seven years to develop as part of EUROfusion’s flagship DEMO programme, which is expected to be the successor to ITER – the experimental fusion reactor currently under construction in France.

The snake will be deployed and operated remotely inside a hazardous environment without being touched by humans. It can also work effectively in pipes packed together, with little space for access.

Tristan Tremethick, lead mechanical design engineer, UKAEA, said: “In fusion machines, pipework has to be connected and disconnected remotely because of the hazardous environment.

“Pipework in DEMO is extra challenging because of the limited working space. We’ve been looking at different ways of tackling this and I’m delighted our new snake has passed its first set of trials.

“The bespoke laser welding tool takes a novel approach and operates inside of the pipework to make best use of the cramped space available.”

The project also involved creating an ultrasonic sensor system to move the snake up and down the pipe to identify each precise working location. A separate launch system gets it inside the pipework remotely.

“Ultrasonic sensors enable the snake to find the correct position, where it then clamps to the pipe and performs the weld from the inside. After the weld, the tool retracts and is removed from the pipe where it can be redeployed,” Tremethick added:

“Robots are a key part of our mission to deliver low carbon fusion energy, and we need to become skilled in controlling machines like this one remotely. That’s because they will be used to maintain fusion energy power plants. We won’t be able to send people in, robots will keep them running – it’s the future.”

A laser cutting tool operating on the same principles as the snake has also been developed and both can potentially be used for other industry applications.

In February, a “milestone” fusion energy experiment was completed that demonstrated the technologies potential as a safe and sustainable low-carbon energy source.

It saw fifty-nine megajoules of fusion energy being generated sustainably for five seconds in the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak machine.

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