Scientists say they can use artificial intelligence to solve a major problem in the search for nearly unlimited clean energy

(CNN) — Scientists working in the field of fusion energy say they have found a way to overcome one of their biggest challenges to date: the use of artificial intelligence.

Nuclear fusion has been praised for decades as a virtually unlimited source of clean energy that would be a revolutionary solution to the climate crisis. But experts have achieved and maintained fusion energy for only a few seconds, and many hurdles remain, including the instability of the very complex process.

There are several ways to obtain fusion energy, but the most common is to use variants of hydrogen as input fuel and raise the temperature to exceptionally high levels in a donut-shaped machine, known as a tokamak. To create plasma, a soup-like substance.

But that plasma needs to be controlled and is susceptible to being “torn” and blown out of the powerful magnetic field of the machine, which is designed to keep the plasma contained.

On Wednesday, researchers at Princeton University and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory reported in the journal Nature that they have discovered a way to use artificial intelligence to predict these potential instabilities and prevent them from happening in real time.

The team conducted their experiments at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego and found that their AI controller could predict potential plasma breakdown 300 milliseconds in advance. Without that intervention, the fusion reaction would have ended abruptly.

A Princeton spokesperson said, “The experiments lay the foundation for using AI to resolve a wide range of plasma instabilities that have long hindered fusion energy.”

Agyeman Coleman, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University and one of the study’s authors, says the results are “without a doubt” a step forward for nuclear fusion.

“This is one of the big hurdles – the bottlenecks – and the objective is to operate any reactor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for years without any problems,” Coleman told CNN. “And these types of interruptions and instabilities would be very problematic, so developing solutions like this increases their confidence that we can run these machines without any problems.”

Fusion energy is the process that powers the Sun and other stars, and experts have been trying to master it on Earth for decades. This is achieved when two atoms that normally repel each other are forced to merge. This is in contrast to nuclear fission – the type most commonly used today – which is based on the splitting of atoms.

Earlier this month, scientists and engineers near the English city of Oxford set a new nuclear fusion energy record, sustaining 69 megajoules of fusion energy for five seconds using just 0.2 milligrams of fuel. This is enough to supply about 12,000 homes at the same time.

But more energy was spent in the experiment than was generated. However, another team in California, in a process called “ignition”, managed to produce a net amount of fusion energy in December 2022. Since then, the team has repeated the ignition process three times.

Despite promising progress, fusion energy is far from being commercially available, years beyond the point when deep, sustained cuts in planet-warming pollution are required to avoid the worsening effects of the crisis.

Scientists say that reduction in pollution is necessary in this decade.

—CNN’s Rachel Ramirez contributed to this report.

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