In their quest to harness a cost-effective near-limitless source of energy, scientists in China have been able to reach temperatures in excess of 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit) – the temperature at which nuclear fusion takes place inside a reactor on Earth.
The record feat was achieved during a test at the country’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASHIPS).
“In a world faced with the dilemma of an increasing demand for electricity and a worsening environment, China is working on a fusion project that can discharge a tremendous amount of clean energy without producing byproducts that are harmful to the ozone layer,” said the Chinese state-owned news network CGTN (China Global Television Network).
Also known as China’s “artificial sun,” EAST is a giant doughnut-shaped machine considered to be the world’s most advanced reactor in so far as magnetic confinement technology goes.
“It’s certainly a significant step for China’s nuclear fusion program and an important development for the whole world,” associate professor Matthew Hole from the Australian National University told ABC.
“The benefit is simple in that it is very large-scale base load [continuous] energy production, with zero greenhouse gas emissions and no long-life radioactive waste,” Dr. Hole said.
To explain nuclear fusion in the simplest terms possible, it is the fusion of hydrogen atoms in a super-heated environment of over 150 million degrees Celsius.
It causes the deuterium and tritium nuclei in the hydrogen atoms to fuse together, forming a helium nucleus and a neutron and generating huge amounts of cheap energy in the process.
Nuclear fission, on the other hand, is a process whereby energy is produced by splitting the atom instead of fusing nuclei.
Although the fission method also generates huge amounts of energy, it leaves behind potentially lethal radioactive waste that can last for tens of thousands of years.
The process, however, is currently being used in nuclear weapons, as well as for power generation the world over.
The latest breakthrough by China in the fusion method has certainly paved the way for an alternative source of a near-inexhaustible supply of clean energy with way less pollution and leftover waste.
Mike Mcrae of Science Alert couldn’t have worded it better when he wrote:
“If we can achieve that, the payoff would be massive.
“Unlike nuclear fission – where surplus energy comes from the decay of large atoms into smaller elements – nuclear fusion doesn’t result in anywhere near as much radioactive waste.
“In fact, the end result of squeezing together isotopes of hydrogen is mostly helium.”
Although China has reached the temperature milestone first, it may not be long before scientists elsewhere come up with a better method of generating the required amounts of heat necessary for nuclear fusion, considering the amount of research going on around the world.
One such method being experimented is injecting plasma into a huge metal doughnut, confining the cloud of electron-rich charged particles with the help of magnetic fields, thereby enabling sustained heating of the atoms.
Germany’s Wendelstein 7-X, or W7-X, is a Stellarator plasma device that does exactly that, holding the unstable plasma in place using magnetic coils.
The plasma-taming device is based on a technology first conceptualized by American theoretical physicist Lyman Spitzer.
The W7-X has already given proof of its worthiness, managing to heat helium to 40 million degrees Celsius.
Although a big improvement from earlier efforts, it was still more than halfway short of the target temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius, below which fusion will not take place.
The Tokamak technology that China’s EAST reactor is based on keeps the unsteady plasma in check using the magnetic fields the plasma itself produces.
It may not be the best way of keeping the plasma stable but it does generate the temperatures so necessary for nuclear fusion.
EAST also has the distinction of holding the plasma in place in a high-energy environment for as long as 101.2 seconds, which it achieved in July last year, “setting a world record in long-pulse H-mode operation,” according to PHYS.ORG.
The two significant milestones achieved by EAST within a span of just over a year hold great promise of a future with a practically limitless supply of clean low-cost energy.
However, it’s not something that we can look forward to in the immediate future as there is still a lot of challenges ahead and a lot of work will be required to perfect the promising technology.
One such challenge is the procurement of the preferred ‘tritium’ isotope of hydrogen, which is not in abundant supply on Earth.
That said, science has a way of almost invariably finding solutions to the trickiest of problems and, hopefully, researchers will be able to work around the hurdles, if not eliminate them.
It must be mentioned that China is part of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) – an international collaboration of 35 countries working towards developing a fully functional nuclear fusion reactor and EAST’s latest achievement is a big step in that direction.
Here are some Twitter reactions to this significant milestone reached by China on its way to a clean source of nuclear fusion energy.
We accomplished a high-density H-mode high-beta non-inductive steady-state operation of EAST, Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak.
By analyzing the physical integration, we can meet the requirements of a future fusion reactor in terms of normalized parameters
— art (@art2i) November 15, 2018
#China creates Experimental Advanced Superconducting #Tokamak (EAST) or nuclear-powered artificial sun at #CASHIPS for the first time achieved a plasma central electron temperature of 100 million Celsius https://t.co/4xw8wOU4bB pic.twitter.com/bmxay79mcN
— Luka Gerzic (@gerzic) November 16, 2018