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Augmented reality could let us see radiation – SOFT Prize winner Jonathan Naish

Jonathan Naish created an award-winning virtual reality system to check radiation exposure levels in a nuclear fusion experiment. Image courtesy of Jonathan Naish

Engineers at the Joint European Torus (JET) nuclear fusion experiment could be using augmented reality through Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to see where radiation hotspots are, according to Jonathan Naish, at the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, who has developed an award-winning system to check exposure using virtual reality.

You won a 2016 European prize for innovation in fusion research at this year’s Symposium on Fusion Technology (SOFT) for your virtual reality system, known as VORTEX. How does it work?

‘For this VORTEX project, we were concerned about the gamma radiation after the upcoming ... campaign (to perform a reaction at JET in 2017). To get a better understanding of the radiation fields calculated from computational models, complex 3D radiation data has been integrated with (computer-aided design) models to form a virtual reality environment using the HTC Vive (virtual reality headset).

‘When the headset is put on and the controllers picked up, an operator can walk around a virtual model of the reactor to practice scenarios. So if there is a piece of the machine that needs fixing, or equipment needed to be retrieved from the machine whilst it’s radioactive, we can plan this procedure and see how much radiation would be received by an operator in a virtual environment. This will help decide if the procedure will be conducted.’

‘You could project computer-generated images of the radiation in front of them so they would know which areas to avoid.’

Jonathan Naish, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, UK

Where did you get the idea from?

‘I do a lot of the calculations for the JET machine to make sure if people make modifications they are safe from a radiological perspective. We produce neutrons in the reactor during the fusion processes. When we fuse deuterium and tritium (forms of hydrogen) together it produces a neutron, and these neutrons have problems and benefits associated with them.

One issue is they can make materials surrounding the reactor radioactive. This can become a problem when you turn off the reactor and want to send people in to perform maintenance. We use computer programs to track the neutrons and estimate the activity of the activated material, this allows us to estimate the levels of radiation around the machine when maintenance is required.

‘As time goes by, we are conducting larger and larger calculations, so we’re constantly trying to think of new ways to interact with this data. I’m a bit of a virtual reality enthusiast myself and I knew a bit about these computer game engines previously. We had one of these headsets on site for communication purposes. I found out about it and borrowed it. I did a bit of this in my free time before I could convince someone to fund it.’

You won the third prize of EUR 12 500. What are you going to do with the money?

‘I have two different steps. I have proved that this works for the JET machine as I had all the data ready to go. I next want to start using other models such as ITER (a fusion reactor under construction in Cadarache, France). I want to show that this process works for future machines to help with their planning and building.


The Joint European Torus (JET), which has received funding from the EU's Euratom programme, is the world’s biggest operational fusion experiment, the aim of which is to produce energy through the same process that powers the sun.

The experiment, which is used by more than 40 European laboratories, successfully contained superheated plasma for the first time in 1983, and in 1991 it became the first experiment to achieve the controlled release of power from a fusion reaction.

In 2017, JET engineers plan to run a reaction of deuterium and tritium – the two forms of hydrogen which will be used at ITER, the follow-up fusion reactor under construction in France. More than 350 scientists and engineers from all over Europe currently contribute to the JET programme.

And it is not only applicable for fusion devices. I would like to expand it to other big research facilities that have 3D data. I have used radiation data because that is my field of interest, but you could also walk around and look at the temperature distribution of machines or other physical properties. The technique is not just for human activity, it is also useful to track the dose received by autonomous robots that are used in remote operations for maintenance and repair.

‘That was step one of what I thought the future developments were, and step two was trying to keep up with the technology. Microsoft is developing a device called the Microsoft HoloLens. It is basically a computer that is attached to your head with glasses on the front. The idea is that you would be able to send a worker into this environment and you could project computer-generated images of the radiation in front of them. This way they would know which areas to avoid. It’s an interesting device and we are also thinking that you could relay instructions to the operator through this headset, this would allow you (to) direct them to where they should be going to try to minimise their dose.’

So it’s a step beyond virtual reality?

‘Yes, exactly. And, as far as I am aware, it will use the same interface, so I use all the models I’ve got already. You just get a different device to output it to, but I’m still having discussions with Microsoft to get my hands on one of these.’

What’s the next thing for you now?

‘I hope to keep the momentum going on this project. Receiving the prize has raised the profile of VORTEX and it would be a shame not to capitalise on the interest it has received. Winning the prize raised awareness of this kind of work and allowed me to demonstrate the concept at the SOFT conference so everyone could experience it and understand the benefits. It hopefully means I can get more people on board so we can start to develop bigger models for more machines.’

Innovation in nuclear fusion

The SOFT Innovation Prize was launched in 2014 with the aim of stimulating the research community to develop a stronger innovation and entrepreneurship culture in the European fusion programme. This year’s three prize-winners were announced on 5 September at the 29th biennial get-together of fusion researchers, which took place in Prague in the Czech Republic.

The EUR 50 000 first prize went to a German-Swiss team from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, for their contribution to the development of a high-temperature superconducting cable, which could prove key to manufacturing the large magnets needed to contain plasma.

The second prize of EUR 25 000 went to an Italian-French research team for their work on a new type of palladium-based membrane that will have applications for purifying hydrogen in order to create ingredients for fusion reactions.

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