China’s “Artificial Sun” nuclear reactor is the key to a future of clean energy resources

  • China’s wildly popular ‘artificial sun’ nuclear reactor broke records by generating energy at 70 million degrees Celsius for 17 minutes that’s actually five times hotter than the actual sun.
  • The project titled Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak or EAST located at a research facility in China’s Hefei city in Anhui Province is a joint collaboration between 35 countries including India.
  • The power of nuclear fission is considered by scientists to be the ultimate energy source for humanity in the future since it’s a much more sustainable and efficient option than conventional fossil fuels like coal.

The key to unlocking the immense power and possibilities of solar energy physics.

China’s wildly popular ‘artificial sun’ is a project known as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak or EAST. The immensely powerful feat of engineering is in fact a donut-shaped nuclear reactor chamber. The reason it has been popularized by its nickname as the “artificial sun” in the media is due to its highly unconventional operating principle. The reactor core mimics the process of energy generation, known as nuclear fusion, which actually occurs in the Sun’s core. The process of fission uses atomic nuclei to generate large amounts of energy and consecutively harness it for electricity, by merging two hydrogen atoms to create helium.

Hence the goal of this ‘sun’ is not to supply light or heat, but instead an enormous amount of clean energy. This energy will serve as a cleaner and much more sustainable option for energy than conventional fossil fuels.  Researchers hope to harvest enough from tokamaks to power cities. EAST is currently being operated at a research facility in China’s Hefei city in Anhui Province.

What are tokamaks?

Tokamaks are essentially reactors that use a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma which is a fluid of nuclei and electrons produced when electrons in atoms disassociate after being heated to fusion temperature. Unlike electrically neutral atoms, a plasma is electrically conductive, and can, therefore, be manipulated by electrical or magnetic fields in the shape of a torus, which is the working principle behind a tokamak. These reactors are currently being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power.

Tokamaks were initially conceptualized in the 1950s by Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov. The first working tokamak was attributed to the work of Natan Yavlinsky on the T-1 in 1958. Today, tokamaks are widely popular and are being developed by organizations such as Tokamak Energy, in the United Kingdom as well as the Bill Gates-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems, and the Korea Institute of Fusion Energy, which set a new record last year by running its reactor at one million degrees for 30 seconds.

EAST’s record-smashing adventure

Before EAST, France’s Tore Supra tokamak held the world record for the longest plasma duration time of any tokamak reactor at 6.5 minutes in 2003. South Korea’s Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) reactor set a world record in 2016 by maintaining 50 million degrees Celsius (90 million degrees Fahrenheit) for 70 seconds. In contrast, the core of the actual sun is around 15 million degrees Celsius (27 million degrees Fahrenheit).

And then, EAST broke KSTAR’s record in 2021 sustaining around 119 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) for 102 seconds. The EAST reactor also set another record in May last year by running for 101 seconds at an unprecedented 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit).

China’s nuclear fusion reactor again jumped into headlines earlier this month with news of a better feather in its already adorned cap. According to reports by the state media Xinhua, the device broke world records after sustaining a nuclear reaction at 70 million degrees Celsius (158 million degrees Fahrenheit) for more than 17 minutes. This gigantic achievement actually translates into the fact that China’s very own ‘artificial sun’ was generating energy at such an unprecedented scale that it is calculated to be five times hotter than the real Sun itself.

At the center of a solar system of controversy

EAST recently became a target for several controversial videos. A bunch of fake videos made the rounds of social media, especially on Twitter. These Videos which have been tweeted and retweeted a million times by users show the “Artificial Sun” as an actual glowing fireball that is shown being launched into space by a rocket launcher. The 30-second viral clip shows a glowing orb rising in the sky above the sea. The clip also shows a crowd of people who are seen gathered on the beach and seem to be shouting in an unrecognizable language while recording the “rise” of the new sun. However, official portals have branded the video as a hoax and a clever feat of photoshop and video editing skills.

Many unreliable journals have also published stories regarding the possibility of China launching an “Artificial Moon” in the future. All such claims have only fuelled idle citizens’ curiosity and gossip but have been denied to have any truth by the officials.

The rocky road ahead

Using nuclear fusion to generate energy is as lucrative a proposition in thought as it is on paper. Scientists over the world have debated over and over regarding the safety concerns in using this method of energy production in comparison to other established sources such as coal. However to understand such safety issues we must understand the actual working of a tokamak.

The process which occurs inside a ‘tokamak’ is such that the powerful magnetic field used to contain the swirling cloud of hydrogen gas stops the superheated plasma in its core from touching the edge of the vessel. This engineering application ensures that the plasma doesn’t melt anything and everything that it comes into contact with. Moreover, if anything goes wrong inside a fusion reactor, the device just stops hence, there happens to be no risk of this astronomical heat being unleashed.

Also, there needs to be a clear distinction to be made between the process of nuclear fusion and that of nuclear fission which is commonly employed in making destructive weapons such as atom bombs. In tokamaks, magnetic fields are used to trap the electrically-charged plasma particles in an ‘apple-core’ shape, keeping the fusion fuels contained and hot. When the plasma has been heated to 10 times the temperature of the sun to get it going, it is capable of ensuring the fusing of two hydrogen nuclei into a helium nucleus thereby producing energy.

Nuclear fission, on the other hand, is a dangerous kind. This creates energy by splitting one ‘heavy’ atom (typically uranium) into two. This breakdown generates a large amount of radioactive waste in the process, which remains hazardous for years.

When will nuclear fusion become a viable source of energy?

The question of using nuclear fusion successfully to power homes and industries for years to come has never been more applicable than in the current world scenario. The population on Earth is brimming to the edges and researchers need an answer to the depleting natural resources more than ever. If the current pace is allowed to continue in this regard, our future generations might be starved in a world without energy from conventional sources. The need to create alternative avenues for renewable sources of energy has never burned brighter.

As far as nuclear fusion is concerned, scientists at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science touted the success of EAST in expanding the country’s clean energy options.  Researcher Gong Xianzu feels that since we get a lot more energy out of this reaction than out of burning fossil fuels, there’s a high risk of things going the wrong way which makes it essential to establish strong controls. If successful, fusion energy would be a major pathway in the green transition by producing low carbon energy without greenhouse gasses and radioactive waste. Alongside natural sources like solar, wind, and tidal energy, this essence, would mean that we can have a virtually limitless supply of fuel.

Scientists have been trying to make fusion work for more than 50 years and it could still be a while before we can effectively power our homes using it. But that being said, governments are getting more serious about renewable power, with the example of the UK Government investing £10 million into Tokamak Energy last year.

EAST is estimated to cost the Chinese government approximately a little more than $1 trillion by the experiment’s end in June this year. The tokamak project is part of a collaboration project based in France known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) which is set to be the world’s largest nuclear reactor. Alongside China, 35 countries are participating in the project including the entire European Union, the United Kingdom, India, and the United States. ITER contains the world’s most powerful magnet, able to produce a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than Earth’s own field, according to Live Science. The powerful global fusion reactor is expected to run in 2025.

However, China isn’t stopping at EAST, the country is planning to complete a new Tokamak fusion device by the early 2030s.  Hence, the key to unlimited power might as well be within our reach soon.

Disclaimer: This information is covered based on the latest research and development available. However, it may not fully reflect all current aspects of the subject matter.

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