Chinas ‘artificial sun’ could unlock limitless green energy

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The EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) nuclear fusion reactor. known informally as China’s own ‘artificial sun’, broke world records in a recent experiment after superheating a loop of plasma to 70 million degrees Celsius, five times hotter than the sun, and maintaining this temperature for over 17 minutes straight. The previous record set by France’s Tore Supra Tokamak in 2003 saw similar temperatures held for merely 390 seconds, paling in comparison to China’s newest feat.

Nuclear fusion reactions are what power the sun and other stars. According to Energy.gov, a fusion reaction involves two light nuclei merging to form a single heavier nucleus. This process releases energy because the total mass of the single heavier nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei. The leftover mass becomes energy.

The most common design for fusion reactors is the aforementioned ‘Tokamak’, which works by superheating plasma, a process which produces a neutron and a helium nucleus. This particular process releases much more energy than most other fusion reactors.

The first Tokamak was designed by Soviet scientist Natan Yavlinsky in 1958. and for over 70 years since scientists have been trying to fully harness the power of nuclear fusion reactions. Whilst China’s recent record is definitely a step in the right direction, we are still far from our ultimate goal of being able to generate enormous amounts of energy without producing greenhouse gases or long-lasting radioactive waste through this form of power generation.

Fortunately, further developments in this field may come fairly soon. EAST’s $1 trillion experiment is forecast to run until June, and is being used ultimately to test out technologies for an even bigger project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). ITER, currently being forged in France, is set to be the world’s largest nuclear reactor, expected to come online in 2025. This project is the product of collaboration between 35 countries, including every state in the European Union, the UK, China, India, and the USA. The last three in particular are very important, being the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, a positive sign that they are looking for new and innovative ways to urgently reduce their footprint.

Furthermore, China is pursuing more of its own individual projects. The nation is conducting internal confinement fusion experiments and is planning to complete a new and improved Tokamak by the early 2030’s. In addition, the first viable fusion reactor could be completed in the US as soon as 2025, and a company in the UK hopes to be commercially generating electricity from fusion reaction by 2030.

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