A new laser welding ‘robotic snake’ developed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority has been shown to work inside the piping of a fusion power plant and is now patented technology.
The new trials at the Culham Science Center are another step on the roadmap to provide the grid with safe, sustainable and low-carbon fusion power.
The UKAEA’s £2.7 million seven-year RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) project was delivered under EUROfusion’s flagship DEMO programme, which is set to be the successor to ITER.
The DEMO snake will be remotely deployed and operated in a hazardous environment without being touched by humans. It can also work effectively in pipes packed together, with little access space.
Tristan Tremethick, Principal Mechanical Design Engineer, UKAEA, said: “In fusion machines, piping has to be connected and disconnected remotely due to the hazardous environment. Piping in DEMO is an additional challenge due to the limited working space. We looked at different ways to solve this problem and I’m delighted that our new snake has passed its first round of testing.
“The bespoke laser welding tool takes a new approach and works inside the pipework to make the most of the tight space available. At RACE, we pride ourselves on providing comprehensive solutions to enable operations and protect people in harsh environments, and this is another exciting result on our path to delivering fusion power.
The project also involved creating a system of ultrasonic sensors to move the snake up and down the pipe to identify each precise work location. A separate launch system remotely enters it into the piping.
The work shown in this video is the testing of all equipment working together for the first time.
Tristan Tremethick added: “The ultrasonic sensors allow the snake to find the correct position, where it then attaches itself to the pipe and does the welding from the inside. After welding, the tool retracts and is removed from the pipe where it can be redeployed.
“Robots are a key part of our mission to deliver low-carbon fusion power, and we need to learn skills in remotely controlling machines like this. That’s because they will be used to maintain the fusion power plants. We won’t be able to send people, the robots will operate them – that’s the future.
RACE has also developed a laser cutter working on the same principles as the snake and both can potentially be used for other industrial applications.
The EUROfusion consortium is made up of experts, students and staff from across Europe collaborating to realize fusion energy, co-funded by the European Commission.
ITER is a fusion research mega-project, based in the south of France, to further demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy.