Once upon a time, the sun was just something we gazed at. We assumed it to be God because it was the only light and heat existent in the expanse of darkness. Today, humans have achieved over ten times the sun’s temperature in the labs of the earth itself. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
The majority of the phenomena and processes happening around us are chemical in nature. That is, the electrons of an atom are involved in the process. However, when it comes to the sun, or the interior of the sun, or how it manages to produce heat, light, and energy, it is all to do with the nucleus of an atom, i.e., the protons and neutrons. Sun has power due to nuclear fusion, where hydrogen atoms are being converted into helium atoms at the sun’s core at a temperature of about 15 million degrees (Celsius).
On the other hand, China has a nuclear fusion reactor that can burn eight times higher than the sun’s temperature. It is called the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak). A tokamak is a machine that confines a plasma using magnetic fields in a donut shape that scientists call a torus.
Fusion energy scientists believe that tokamaks are the leading plasma confinement concept for future fusion power plants. EAST mimics the sun’s energy generation nuclear fusion process and set a record previously thought unachievable when it reached 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds; and an even more shocking temperature of 160 million Celsius for 20 seconds.
China remains the world’s leading polluter: it built its growth on fossil fuels and continues to create new, highly polluting coal-fired power plants every year.
The Global Times reported that this is an attempt to provide almost infinite clean energy, similar to that of the stars. The reactor is situated at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The Tokamak HL-2M reactor
China has the Tokamak HL-2M reactor, the country’s largest and most advanced nuclear fusion experimental research device, in Sichuan province (southwest). It is a magnetic confinement chamber that generates strong heat to melt atomic nuclei.
This reactor is known by the name of “artificial sun”, due to the temperature that can exceed 150 million degrees, according to Xinhua, that is to say, ten times the heat produced in the very heart of the Sun.
How does EAST work?
To produce clean energy and reach such high temperatures, a hydrogen isotope, deuterium (the seas have a lot of previously untapped deuterium), and tritium are placed inside the Tokamak to create a plasma state (the fifth state of matter- the state of the stars). Then, high pressure is applied to these nuclei so that they fuse to form helium atoms. During this process, it is of immense importance to maintain high temperatures at all times.
China’s EAST had previously achieved the feat of 100 million degrees Celsius in 2018. Global Times reported that EAST is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) facility, a global scientific project jointly put together by China, the EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US. However, scientists say it might take about an entire decade for the reactor to be entirely fruitful.
Previously, nuclear fission was preferred (splitting an atom into its sub-atomic parts), but it released much atomic waste that was hard and harmful to dispose of. The experimental reactor first began operating in 2006 and has since been one of the critical sources for research around nuclear fusion.
Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR)- the fusion set-up from Korea had reached a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds in December 2020.
The next goal for the scientists behind the experimental Tokamak is to maintain the high temperature for an extended period. Previously, the EAST had reached a record temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius in 2018.
However, the now attained temperature is a step in the right direction as far as China’s green development is concerned, Lin Boquiang told the Global Times. “It’s more like a future technology that’s critical for China’s green development push,” he said.
Synergy of technologies
Research on nuclear fusion is not new. Magnetic confinement chambers were initially conceived in the USSR. Others were built in Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
This nuclear fusion (whose principle is already used by the explosion of H-bombs) should not be confused with fission (a division of atoms) that operates in classical atomic power plants.
The difficulty is maintaining these temperatures sustainably and containing them in resistant materials.
Scientific research and technology are developing at an exponential rate. So maybe the day where we rely entirely on green energy will come sooner than we think.