Why in news: Chinese Experiment

In November 2018, Chinese researchers announced that the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor — an “artificial sun” designed to mimic the nuclear fusion process the real Sun uses to generate energy — had hit a milestone by achieving an electron temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius.

Recently an official at the China National Nuclear Corporation announced during the annual session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that engineers would wrap up construction on the nation’s HL-2M Tokamak in 2019.

The artificial sun’s plasma is mainly composed of electrons and ions, and the country’s existing Tokamak devices have achieved an electron temperature of over100 million degrees C in its core plasma, and an ion temperature of 50 million C, and it is the ion that generates energy in the device.The HL-2M Tokamak will be able to achieve an ion temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius, about seven times hotter than the real Sun’s ion temperature.

This meets “one of the three challenges to reach the goal of harnessing nuclear fusion.”

If it happens, the device could serve as a template for future nuclear fusion reactors,bringing the dream of unlimited clean energy one step closer to reality.

About mission and Nuclear fusion process

The artificial Sun (not to be confused with the ‘artificial moons’ China intends to send up to space soon), is a popular name given to one of the most promising nuclear fusion experiments to date. Designed to replicate the process our Sun uses to generate energy, researchers set up the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion reactor in 2006.

A ‘Tokamak’ is a reactor design that resembles a donut — a donut that generates powerful magnetic forces to contain unimaginably hot plasma inside the reactor during nuclear fusion. The walls of a tokamak are built to absorb the massive amounts of heat from the continuous splitting of atoms in the reactor’s core.

The process of nuclear fusion, where two hydrogen atoms combine in a reaction that produces an enormous amount of energy, is often called the ‘great white whale’ of global energy. Nuclear reactors like EAST are a means to exactly that: an almost infinite supply of energy that is clean.

BENEFITS OF NUCLEAR FUSION

  • Nuclear fusion is arguably the best way for humans to generate energy
  • The required raw materials — deuterium and tritium — are easily available in the oceans
  • Nuclear fusion also doesn’t produce any harmful radioactive waste and hence, is extremely environment-friendly

One of the few hurdles to unleashing nuclear fusion as an energy source is sustaining the fusion reaction for longer than a handful of minutes. The longest recorded reaction is was at the Tore Supra tokamak in France (also known as WEST), for 6 minutes and 30 seconds in 2003.

Significance of Experiment

This development represents a win-win scenario, it seems, for science as well as the energy objectives of the Chinese government.

As Australian National University Associate Professor of Physics Matthew Hole explains, “It’s certainly a significant step for China’s nuclear fusion program and important development for the whole world. The benefit is simple in that it is a very large-scale base load [continuous] energy production, with zero greenhouse gas emissions and no long-life radioactive waste.”

Another sign of the enormous impact of this development is the endorsement of the work by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the massive multinational initiative that aims to produce the world’s largest magnetic nuclear fusion device. It also sends the message that global energy aims will be a collaborative and cooperative process.

No doubt there is a long list of budgetary and feasibility issues that will need to bead dressed to make the project a reality, but China should be commended for embracing a perspective on rising energy demands that involves bold and creative solutions. In these uncertain times, it is vital to continuously produce strategies that anticipate the challenges ahead.