Scientists in eastern China on Monday announced the creation of a temporary “artificial sun” over six times hotter than the core of the real sun, marking an important step toward building the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant.
The “artificial sun” — a subatomic particle soup known as plasma — maintained a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius for 10 seconds during an experiment conducted earlier this year at the Institute of Plasma Physics in Anhui province.
Scientists contained the plasma in a round, 400-ton machine known as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST. The tokamak — a type of device that confines hot plasma by using magnetic fields to prevent it from touching and melting its container — is a strong contender in the scientific search for a practical fusion reactor.
In theory, nuclear fusion reactors could produce huge amounts of environmentally friendly energy by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium, similar to the reactions at the core of sun. This differs from nuclear power plants currently in operation, which produce energy — as well as radioactive byproducts — by splitting uranium atoms in a process known as fission. Many of the world’s other energy sources, such as coal, produce carbon when processed, which contributes to climate change.
An interior view of the magnetic chamber used to create the ‘artificial sun’ in Hefei, Anhui province, Nov. 12, 2018. CNS
The EAST experiment is one of many initiatives across the world striving to develop clean energy from nuclear fusion. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project — a global collaboration of 35 countries, including China, initiated in 1985 — is currently developing the world’s largest tokamak in France. Scientists at Google and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are now working on their own nuclear fusion projects as well.
Designed, constructed, and assembled mainly by Chinese scientists, the EAST project was approved by China’s National Development and Reform Commission in 1998 to conduct fundamental physics and engineering research on advanced tokamak fusion reactors.
According to the Institute of Plasma Physics, the results of EAST’s experiments this year will aid in the construction of ITER’s tokamak. The project will also provide experimental evidence and scientific support for the country’s ongoing China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor project, which is similarly working to develop nuclear fusion.
Though development of fusion technology began roughly 60 years ago, it has yet to create a viable energy source. ITER’s tokamak is currently halfway through construction and is scheduled to generate power by December 2025. MIT’s fusion project, meanwhile, is set to do so in 15 years’ time.
Keeping plasma at a high temperature without melting its container is still a challenge, but breakthroughs in tokamak technology have accelerated in recent years. In an earlier experiment from 2016, EAST maintained a plasma temperature of nearly 50 million degrees Celsius for 102 seconds before the fusion chamber melted.
Editor: Layne Flower.
(Header image: A view of the experimental apparatus used to create the ‘artificial sun’ in Hefei, Anhui province, Nov. 12, 2018. CNS)