Chinese nuclear scientists have reached an important milestone in the global effort to exploit energy from nuclear fusion, a process that naturally happens in the sun.
- Artificial Sun is designed to reproduce the process of fusion that occurs in the sun
- Dr. Matthew Hole said the achievement is important for fusion science around the world
- Fusion is considered a solution to energy issues as it is clean, sustainable and powerful
The team of scientists from China's Plasma Physics Institute announced this week that plasma in the experimental advanced superconducting torak (EAST) – called "artificial sun" – reached the imposing 100 million degrees Celsius, a temperature required to maintain a reaction fusion that produces more energy than it needs to run.
To put it in perspective, the temperature at the core of the sun is said to be about 15 million degrees Celsius, making plasma in the "artificial sun" of China more than six times warmer than the original one.
The news comes after China that rocked the science community last month with plans to launch an "artificial moon" bright enough to replace the city's roads by 2020.
Chinese scientists plan to send three artificial moons to space over the next four years. (ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)
Speaking at ABC, Professor Matthew Hole from the Physics and Engineering Research Faculty of the National University of Australia stated that the achievement was an important step in the science of nuclear fusion.
"It is definitely an important step for China's nuclear fusion program and a major development for the whole world," Dr Hole told ABC, adding that the development of fusion reactors could be the solution to global energy problems.
"The benefit is simple because it is a very large scale basic load [continuous] energy production with zero greenhouse gas emissions and no long-lived radioactive waste.
"It provides a silver energy solution bullet … provided that one can use it".
He added that nuclear fusion reactors also avoid the dangers associated with currently used nuclear fission reactors, which can adapt to dangerous weapons and are prone to possible disastrous precipitations.
The news became viral in Chinese social media, with most users excited by the achievement.
"There is nothing that China can not do," said a Weibo user.
Another proclaimed that "if this technology comes into use, people will no longer feel anxious about the energy crisis."
So how did China do it?
The experimental advanced superconductive Tokamak of China (EAST), called "Artificial Sun". (Provided: Chinese Academy of Sciences Plasma Physics Institute)
While the current nuclear power plants are based on nuclear fission – a chain reaction where uranium atoms break down to release energy – nuclear fusion does the opposite by forcing people to merge.
One way to achieve this on Earth is to use what is known as tokamak, a device designed to reproduce the process of nuclear fusion that occurs naturally in the sun and stars to produce energy.
EAST, who dropped the 100 million Celsius feat, 11 meters high, has a diameter of eight meters and weighs about 360 kg.
High-powered magnets feed the donut into the East. (Provided: Chinese Academy of Sciences Plasma Physics Institute)
It uses a donut ring to house heavy and excessively heavy isotopes – individual variants – hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium.
Isotopes are heated by strong electric currents in the tokamak, detach electrons away from their atoms and form a charged plasma ion of hydrogen.
Strong magnets that cover the inner walls of the East contain the plasma in a small area to maximize the likelihood that the ions will look like together.
When the ions are interconnected, they emit a large amount of energy, which can then be used to operate an electric power plant and generate electricity.
The Chinese research team said they were able to achieve record temperatures through the use of various new techniques for heating and plasma control but could only maintain the condition for about 10 seconds.
The latest breakthrough has provided experimental evidence that the achievement of the 100 million degree Celsius degree is possible, according to the Plasma Physics Institute of China.
Nuclear fusion is a global mission, but not in Australia
Dr Hole said that while the energy potential of nuclear fusion as a clean source of energy has attracted large investments from countries around the world – including China – Australia is lagging behind.
"As a nation, Australia is going to lose its fusion skills," Dr. Hole said, adding that many of his colleagues have changed their field or looking for work abroad due to a lack of investment in fusion science.
"Australia has had a good investment in this time, but it has actually been neglected in recent years."
He said EAST's achievement would be important for the development of the next major experiment of the global science of nuclear fusion: the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
At the time it is being built in southern France in collaboration with 35 nations, including China, ITER is going to be the first fusion device that produces steady clean energy and produces 500 Megawatts of clean and sustainable energy.
As EAST has a similar design to ITER, but on a much smaller scale, it is likely to be a major test tool in the development of ITER, according to the Plasma Physics Institute of China.
ITER is expected to be ready to create its first creature and to be operational in 2025.
ITER will be the first in the world to produce more energy than it needs to run. (Provided by: ITER / EJF Riche)
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