China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) recently set a world record for sustaining nuclear fusion for a prolonged time. Known as China artificial sun, the fusion reactor reportedly maintained a temperature of 70 million Celsius for more than 17 minutes. It is 5 times hotter than the actual sun, which heats up to only 15 million Celsius. This achievement brings scientists one step closer to developing a limitless source of clean energy.
China Artificial Sun Provides Hope for Future
Nuclear fusion is a natural process that powers the sun and burns the stars. Scientists worldwide have been trying to harness its power for more than 70 years. The stars can convert matter into heat by creating helium by fusing hydrogen atoms under high temperatures. It allows them to generate massive energy without producing greenhouse gases or radioactive waste.
China artificial sun aims to replicate this natural reaction occurring among stars. By imitating the sun’s physics, nuclear reactors fuse atomic nuclei to produce abundant energy that can be turned into electricity. Unlike the nuclear fission that produces commercial nuclear energy, the EAST procedure doesn’t require burning fossil fuels and emits no hazardous waste materials. Scientists have claimed that the risk of environmental disasters is also low.
Nuclear fusion has been hyped as the best way to produce clean energy, but it hardly made it out of a laboratory, despite decades of research.
What Are the Challenges?
Replicating the settings of stars is not an easy thing to do, even for China artificial sun. The tokamak is currently the leading device for a fusion reactor to superheat plasma, a state of matter consisting of positive ions and negative free electrons. It uses powerful magnetic fields to trap the plasma inside a doughnut-shaped reactor chamber (torus). However, it is a meticulous process to confine the turbulent plasma in one place for a long enough time to cause nuclear fusion. Soviet nuclear physicist Natan Yavlinsky first designed the tokamak in 1958, but nobody developed an experimental reactor that produced more energy than it consumed.
The primary issue for scientists is to handle plasma that is significantly hot for fusion. Reactors require incredibly high temperatures and pressures to fuse hydrogen atoms. The minimum necessary temperature is reportedly about 100 million Celsius, which is 7 times hotter than the sun’s core. Currently, it is easy for fusion reactors to reach temperatures hotter than the sun, but they still operate at much lower pressures. The hardest part is figuring out how to hold the plasma to prevent it from escaping the reactor walls and ruining the fusion process. Even lasers and magnetic fields have been unable to do the desired job effectively.
Efforts from Across the World
EAST or China artificial sun will reportedly cost the country 1 trillion USD by the time the experiment concludes in June 2022. It is being tested for an even bigger fusion project currently under development in France. It is called International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). With the collaboration of 35 countries, including the US, UK, China, and India, ITER is reportedly set to be the world’s largest nuclear reactor. It contains the most powerful magnet in the world that allows it to produce a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than the one around Earth. The fusion reactor is expected to launch in 2025 and provide a further understanding of the realities involved in harnessing the power of stars.
China is also individually pursuing its own nuclear programs. It has been conducting inertial confinement fusion (ICF) experiments and planning to develop another tokamak by 2030. On the other hand, the US is expected to complete its first viable fusion reactor by 2025, and the UK is optimistic about generating electricity from fusion for commercial usage by 2030.