From aerospace to nuclear: the benefits of the digital twin

It often helps to have a spare, a duplicate, to compare changes to if something doesn’t go to plan. From saving a file to changing the fuse on a plug, having the original at hand can prevent costly errors, save time and money, and speed up modifications. Now researchers at the University of Liverpool are building on successes using the ‘digital twin’ in the aerospace industry, applying them to a new generation of nuclear power stations -- some of the biggest construction projects the UK has ever seen.

Defining a digital twin

In this case, a digital twin is a computer-aided design reference copy of everything that goes into planning, building and generating energy at a power plant. Comparing what was built to what was intended in the digital twin provides unique and valuable insights into what works -- and what doesn’t. “We’re developing a framework that industry can use to create an integrated digital environment for designing, maintaining and operating new nuclear plants,” says Professor Eann Patterson from the University of Liverpool’s School of Engineering. “A digital twin tells you what it was originally meant to look like, what it actually looks like, and how its condition has changed as a consequence of how it was really built and operated.”

The method is a huge task, but promises massive rewards: more optimal operations, reduced costs, greater safety, more reliability and improved power output. The Hinkley Point C plant is set to generate 15-16% of the UK’s energy needs, just reducing downtime for maintenance could save millions of pounds per day. The technique incorporates many elements of building information modelling (BIM), a method of utilising digital plans used by major infrastructure projects to maximise efficiency, reduce costs and increase quality assurance.

Building and expanding on current knowledge

Patterson has been working on the concept in the aerospace industry, including with the US Air Force, which wants a digital twin capability for all of its assets. The aerospace and energy industries both face huge upfront costs and risks to their projects, so anything that can shorten development times and get working products to market is worth extra organisational investment. “We’re translating technology from other industries into nuclear,” says Patterson. “It should allow better synchronisation during design and construction because you’re allowing different sectors of the industry to access to the same digital plans, and that’s a big advantage.” Digital twins could also be seen by the public in future projects, allowing for greater transparency and trust in big government-backed projects.

Working in partnership

Patterson and colleagues at the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory have worked up the concept of the Integrated Nuclear Digital Environment (INDE) for years. Led by the University, much of the research, funded by UK Government through BEIS, has centred around the cluster of facilities including the Virtual Engineering Centre in Daresbury and the Hartree Centre which hosts Britain’s supercomputing infrastructure. Together, the centres and facilities can apply the digital twin concept not just to large-scale nuclear power stations, but to smaller modular plants and a huge, diverse array of infrastructure projects that will serve the UK’s scientific and general populace for decades to come.



Contact Professor Eann Patterson to find out more about this project.

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