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China’s ‘artificial sun’ has been in operation for 17 years now, and it has been on a roll ever since.
This megaproject, meant to be part of the European Union’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor collaboration, has succeeded in breaking many records concerned with energy generation through nuclear fusion.
So far, it has cost China more than $1 trillion and conducted more than 120,000 experiments. Additionally, Chinese researchers and scientists are claiming that it could be the ‘ultimate energy source’ for the future of humanity.
No, it’s not an actual sun.
China’s ‘artificial sun’ is a project called the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), which is being operated at a research facility in the country’s Heifei city in Anhui Province.
EAST is the world’s first superconducting tokamak. This is a machine that uses powerful magnetic fields to contain super hot plasma in a doughnut-shaped space in order to force it to combine over time.
If you aren’t familiar with plasma, you should know that most of the atoms in the hot and dense interior of the sun are ionized. When hydrogen and helium atoms become completely ionized inside the sun, a highly ionized gas called a plasma is formed. Plasma is important because it is responsible for the strength of the sun’s magnetic field at the orbit of the Earth.
In other words, EAST’s physics replicates the real sun’s physics by using cutting-edge technology and millions of parts to function like a ‘mini sun’.
This project, which began operating in 2006, represents one of the most promising paths towards controlled nuclear fusion. In order for it to reach its latest milestone, EAST conducted more than 120,000 experiments.
EAST is breaking records nonstop
In April of this year, China’s ‘artificial sun’ or EAST set a world record after it managed to generate and maintain extremely hot, highly confined plasma for nearly seven minutes, breaking its previous record of 101 seconds.
The ‘artificial sun’ is also breaking global records. Before EAST, France’s Tore Supra tokamak held the world record for the longest plasma duration time of any tokamak reactor at 6.5 minutes in 2003.
EAST also broke South Korea’s Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research reactor’s record of maintaining 50 million degrees Celsius for 70 seconds after it maintained around 119 million degrees Celsius for 102 seconds.
EAST also set another record in 2019 by running for 101 seconds at an unprecedented 120 million degrees Celsius. To put these numbers into perspective, the core of the actual sun is around 15 million degrees Celsius.
EAST’s differences from the sun
For starters, this project is not meant to be an actual sun. It is in fact a donut-shaped reactor chamber where heated-up plasma is kept within a powerful magnetic field.
Its nickname ‘artificial sun’ only makes sense when you compare the real sun’s physics with EAST’s. Overall, EAST doesn’t look like the real sun or share the same benefits as it.
Despite being called a sun, it looks nothing like it. In fact, China’s artificial sun is not a floating sphere of light meant to be launched into the sky, it’s simply a reactor.
The two aren’t similar in goals either, since China’s sun’s goal isn’t to supply light or heat like the real sun, but instead a massive amount of clean energy that could be harvested to power cities.
How it works
EAST’s energy generation process, called nuclear fusion, uses atomic nuclei in order to turn large amounts of energy into electricity by merging hydrogen atoms to create helium.
In the process of nuclear fusion, helium is combined with a substance called deuterium, which produces energy without creating any harmful waste, such as greenhouse gasses or radioactive waste.
Scientists at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science praised the project and talked about its success in expanding China’s clean energy options.
According to researcher Gong Xianzu, raw materials required for the ‘artificial sun’ are almost unlimited on earth, as opposed to fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, which are in danger of being exhausted and pose a threat to the environment.
Therefore, energy generated by nuclear fusion is considered the ideal ‘ultimate energy’ for the future of humanity.
Is it enough to justify the high costs?
According to China, the answer to this question is yes.
Even though it’s estimated to have cost the country more than $1 trillion, China isn’t stopping at EAST. In fact, the country is planning to complete a new Tokamak fusion device by the early 2030s.
China has in fact completed the design of its next-generation artificial sun, called the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR), which aims to be the world’s first fusion demonstration reactor.
It is expected to be completed around 2035, and will produce a large quantity of heat with a peak power output of up to 2 gigawatts.
It isn’t just China seeing the value of nuclear fusion projects, as EAST is part of a collaboration project known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
Alongside China, 35 other countries are participating in the project. These countries include the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the entire European Union.
In addition to the artificial sun, the ITER project contains the world’s most powerful magnet, which is able to produce a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than Earth’s own field, according to Live Science.
This collaboration project is based in France and is set to be the world’s largest nuclear reactor, set to run in 2025. It is supposed to generate clean, carbon-free energy similarly to the sun by emitting light and heat through fusion reactions.
This year, China has timely delivered the required core components for the ITER project in France, according to the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). The delivery of the core components has brought about ITER’s first plasma discharge, a milestone of the project.
This shows how China has been contributing extensively to the development of ‘artificial suns.’
The future of nuclear fusion
With each year passing, the entire world becomes increasingly desperate for an abundant source of clean energy that can help lessen the impacts of the climate crisis created by burning fossil fuels.
As mentioned before, nuclear fusion has the potential to produce energy with near-zero carbon emissions, without creating the dangerous radioactive waste. The idea of using nuclear fusion isn’t completely new, in fact, physicists all around the world have been studying fusion power since the 1950s.
However, turning it into a practical energy source has remained frustratingly elusive. Even if it became a viable and significant source of power, many experts think it’ll take a long time before it can save Earth from complete meltdown.
Most experts agree that we’re unlikely to be able to generate large-scale energy from nuclear fusion before around 2050, and that is even seen as an optimistic opinion. The cautious experts add on another decade.
Given that the current global temperature rise is largely determined by what we do about carbon emissions before then, fusion can’t be the savior we desperately need in the short and medium terms.
In other words, while nuclear fusion sounds a lot more plausible now than it did 10 years ago as a future energy source, it’s not going to be viable in the next 10 to 20 years.
So, we need other solutions. Decarbonizing should depend on other technologies, such as renewables like solar and wind and perhaps carbon-capture techniques.
In the long run, though, we can say that nuclear fusion will be a key part of the energy economy, perhaps in the second half of the century, when more developing countries start requiring energy budgets from developed countries.
The bottom line
Even though it’s uncertain whether we’ll be able to use nuclear fusion as a significant source of energy in the near future, the efforts of China and other ITER countries in this field must be applauded.
If the success of China’s artificial sun EAST and the many records it broke can be replicated for the global artificial sun in France, then the path to solidify nuclear fusion as a viable energy source will certainly be much easier.
It’s a good thing that many developed countries are collaborating on a scientific project with a good cause, emphasizing how acquiring clean and sustainable energy has quickly became a universal goal in our era.
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