China’s experimental advanced superconducting tokamak (EAST) — a fusion energy reactor — has run for 1,056 seconds at 70 million degrees Celsius, the longest duration to date, reported Xinhua News Agency.
The system has been developed by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).
The ‘artificial sun’, called HL-2M, is a fusion reactor at the Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) in Chengdu, which generates power by applying powerful magnetic fields to hydrogen to compress it until it creates a plasma that can reach temperatures of more than 150 million degrees Celsius.
This is 10 times hotter than the nucleus of the Sun and generates enormous amounts of energy when the atoms fuse together.
The plasma is contained with magnets and supercooling technology. The tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power.
EAST scored a previous record in May, running for 101 seconds at a temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius. The latest one came after it was announced last week that a new round of testing would be conducted by the Institute of Plasma Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ASIPP).
Gong Xianzu, a researcher at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was quoted by Xinhua as saying: “The recent operation lays a solid scientific and experimental foundation towards the running of a fusion reactor.”
Nuclear Fusion Reaction
The facility is called “artificial sun” because it mimics the nuclear fusion reaction that powers the real sun, which uses hydrogen and deuterium gasses as fuel. The main purpose of this reactor is to create an enormous amount of green sustainable energy in the future.
And this will be done through the nuclear fusion process. Nuclear fusion, a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles (neutrons or protons), releases very high levels of energy without generating large quantities of nuclear waste.
Currently, nuclear power is obtained in the form of fission, a process contrary to fusion (energy is produced by dividing the nucleus of a heavy atom into two or more nuclei of lighter atoms). Fission is easier to achieve, but it generates waste. Moreover, hydrogen and deuterium gasses are abundant on earth, are clean, and have minimal waste products.
The experiment, which started in early December, will last until June. “[The experiment] once again challenged the world record. We have comprehensively validated the technology, driving it a major step forward from basic research to engineering applications,” said Song Yuntao, Institute of Plasma Physics director.
New Tech With Immense Possibilities
However, fusion reactors are still at a nascent stage. The two main challenges are keeping the temperature over 100 million degrees Celsius and operating at a stable level for a long time, according to Xinhua.
Li Miao, director of the physics department of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, called it a milestone as the experiment reached the goal of keeping the temperature at a stable level for a long time.
“The breakthrough is a significant progress, and the ultimate goal should be keeping the temperature at a stable level for a long time,” Li told the state-owned Global Times, adding that the next milestone might be to maintain the stability for a week or more.
The energy generated from nuclear fusion is the most reliable and clean energy, said Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, adding that if the technology can be applied commercially, it will have huge economic benefits.
However, Lin cautioned that as the technology is still in the experimental stage, and it still needs at least 30 years for it to come out of the lab. “It’s more like a future technology that’s critical for China’s green development push,” he told Global Times.
Biggest Energy Quest
The $22.5 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today. In southern France, 35 nations are collaborating to build the world’s largest tokamak. China is also part of the ITER project.
HL-2M will offer key technical support to this project in research areas such as flux instability and ultra-high temperature plasma magnetic phenomena. Similar endeavours are ongoing in the United States, Europe, Russia, and South Korea.
India is also an integral part of the global project. ITER-India is responsible for the delivery of the following packages: cryostat, in-wall shielding, cooling water system, cryogenic system, ion-cyclotron RF heating system, electron cyclotron RF heating system, diagnostic neutral beam system, power supplies, and some diagnostics.
Additionally, related R&D and experimental activities are being carried out at the ITER-India laboratory in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.