The Oxford City Deal investment into hi-tech research laboratories and businesses in Oxfordshire, announced this week, was particularly good news for Culham Centre of Fusion Energy, operated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority. A major element of this initiative sees the UK government investing £7.8 million (with matching funds from industry) into a remote applications facility, to be based at a brand new building at Culham.
The facility is part of a broader programme of activities in automated and remote handling and is planned to be built in 2015 and operating in 2016. It will enable CCFE and partner organisations (National Nuclear Laboratory, The Welding Institute Technology Centre, National Physical Laboratory and Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre) to offer their expertise in remote interventions and autonomous systems to a wider commercial sector.
CCFE’s own experience with remote handling has been honed over twenty years – developing and utilising systems and training highly skilled engineers to maintain and upgrade the interior of Europe’s JET nuclear fusion experiment. In that time, the remote handling capability has evolved to reliably perform ever more complex tasks including welding, attachment of tiles and diagnostics and detailed surveys.
With the addition of expertise from the project partners, including remote and autonomous working in challenging environments and remote welding techniques, the new centre will offer industry access to an unparalleled concentration of test facilities and expertise to develop and apply technology of remote applications. The intention is for hi-tech engineering companies to gain the skills and expertise to exploit a vast (potentially £64 billion per annum) worldwide market in automated/remote working in harsh environments – from deep space to the deep sea and plenty more besides. Indeed, it is hoped that UK plc will benefit to the tune of £200 million a year and 350 new hi-tech jobs.
Fusion research will benefit from the centre as well. Building on CCFE’s considerable expertise in remote handling, the centre will enable ever more complex remote handling techniques to be perfected – essential for the efficient and reliable performance of maintenance tasks in the harsh environment inside ITER. And the centre will support CCFE’s intention to host one of the design centres for DEMO – the demonstration fusion power reactor expected to follow ITER.
CCFE Operations Director David Martin said: “As well as being good news for Oxfordshire, the City Deal is a major boost for Culham. Such significant government and private sector investment in our robotics and harsh environment capabilities will enable our expertise in this area to benefit the county of Oxfordshire and the UK as a whole.”