China has made another breakthrough in its quest for clean fusion energy. According to state media, one of its “artificial suns” reached a new temperature record: 70 million degrees Celsius for more than 17 minutes.
A new temperature record
The Advanced Experimental Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), a nuclear fusion reactor research facility, operated at 70 million degrees Celsius for 1,056 seconds (17 minutes, 36 seconds), Xinhua reports. This represents a temperature five times higher than that of the sun, which can reach 15 million degrees.
Already in May, EAST succeeded in generating a plasma temperature (hot gas) of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds. For another twenty seconds, the facility then reached a peak temperature of 160 million degrees Celsius. That is more than 10 times the temperature of the sun.
This achievement brings scientists one step closer to a near limitless source of clean energy.
“The recent operation has laid a solid scientific and experimental foundation for the operation of a fusion reactor,” scientist Gong Xianzu said in a statement. A researcher at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he is in charge of the EAST or “artificial sun” project.
The facility is called the “artificial sun” because it mimics the nuclear fusion reaction that powers the real sun. Indeed, fusion energy uses hydrogen and deuterium as fuels. Specifically, it exploits extremely high temperatures to boil hydrogen isotopes in a plasma, fuse them and release energy.
Fusion is seen by some scientists as “the” solution for a carbon-neutral energy future. Indeed, this process is more profitable than fission and does not create high-level radioactive waste. Unlike fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, which are being depleted and pose a threat to the environment, deuterium gases are abundant on earth, are clean and produce minimal waste.
An international challenge
EAST is one of the three major tokamaks in service in China. The HL-2M tokamak fusion reactor is located in Chengdu, southwest China. It has been in service since last December. The third is in the central city of Wuhan.
The EAST experience started at the beginning of December, will last until June. It is expected to cost China more than a trillion dollars.
In the long term, the objective of the EAST tokamak is to test the technologies of an even larger fusion project. This is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) mega project, being built in Marseille, France. Considered the largest nuclear reactor in the world, it is the result of collaboration between 35 countries. Similar efforts are underway in the United States, Europe, Russia and South Korea.
In the long term, scientists hope that this machine will harness the power of nuclear fusion. Indeed, if Beijing supports it, the “artificial sun” could provide electricity in ten years.