Chinese nuclear scientists have reached an important milestone in the global quest to harness energy from nuclear fusion, a process that occurs naturally in the sun.
The team of scientists from China’s Institute of Plasma Physics announced this week that plasma in their Experimental Advanced Superconducting “Tokamak” (EAST) — dubbed the “artificial sun” — reached a whopping 100 million degrees Celsius, temperature required to maintain a fusion reaction that produces more power than it takes to run.
How did China manage to pull it off?
While current nuclear power plants rely on nuclear fission — a chain reaction where uranium atoms are split to release energy — nuclear fusion effectively does the opposite by forcing atoms to merge.
One way of achieving this on Earth is by using what’s known as a tokamak, a device designed to replicate the nuclear fusion process that occurs naturally in the Sun and stars to generate energy.
The EAST that pulled off the 100 million Celsius feat stands at 11 metres tall, has a diameter of 8 metres and weighs about 360 tonnes.
It uses a ring to house heavy and super-heavy isotopes — atomic variations — of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium.
The isotopes are heated by powerful electric currents within the “tokamak”, tearing electrons away from their atoms and forming a charged plasma of hydrogen ions.
Powerful magnets lining the inner walls of EAST then contain the plasma to a tiny area to maximise the chance that the ions will fuse together.
When the ions fuse they give off a large amount of energy, which can then be harnessed to run a power plant and produce electricity.
The Chinese research team said they were able to achieve the record temperature through the use of various new techniques in heating and controlling the plasma, but could only maintain the state for about 10 seconds.
The latest breakthrough provided experimental evidence that reaching the 100 million degrees Celsius mark is possible, according to China’s Institute of Plasma Physics.