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China's "artificial sun" may offer power in ten years if Beijing supports it

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  • Tip Bones

According to one of the project's key scientists, China may create power from a projected "artificial sun" in a decade if the project receives final official clearance.

Professor Song Yuntao told local media at a carbon control conference in Beijing on Sunday that if Beijing grants its approval, the construction of a nuclear fusion reactor may be finished by the early 2030s.

Fusion technology, also known as the artificial sun, has the potential to provide an infinite supply of clean energy by simulating the nuclear fusion process in the sun – but the engineering complexity is significant, and international efforts to develop it have been hampered by delays and spiraling costs.

The government had requested experts to prepare the China Fusion Engineering Testing Reactor (CFETR), which included engineering design and the construction of a huge testing facility in Hefei. However, Song, the head of Hefei's Institute of Plasma Physics, told Beijing News that final clearance was still waiting.

The goal is for the CFETR to be the first facility to generate power using fusion heat. Controlling a highly hot gas, hydrogen, with temperatures within the reactor projected to reach or surpass 100 million degrees Celsius, is a problem (180 million Fahrenheit).

In its initial stage of operation, it is intended to generate a steady power output – required to generate energy – of 200 megawatts, roughly equivalent to a small coal-fired power plant.

China's fusion reactor will most likely not be the world's first, with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France nearing completion and expected to be operational by 2025.

However, following several delays since its inception in 2007, ITER has become the most costly international scientific project in history, with the countries involved – including China – expected to pay between US$45 billion and US$65 billion. And, while it will bring the concept of the artificial sun to completion for the first time, the burn it will cause will not be sustained long enough to provide enough energy for power generation, as China's reactor hopes to do.

China and other nations, according to Song, are supporting and watching the development in France, while leveraging the knowledge and technology produced for ITER to improve their fusion reactor programmes — and the race to build them is heating up.

“The United States intended to create energy with prototype nuclear fusion power plants developed by government and commercial firms between 2035 and 2040,” Song explained. “The United Kingdom proposed commercializing nuclear fusion energy by 2040.”

According to Song, China's fusion research began using Russian gear and technology, but it has now risen to the top of the sector.

In May, a simulation device in Hefei produced a blazing plasma at 150 million degrees Celsius that remained steady for more than 100 seconds, setting a global record. Scientists used a superconductor-generated magnetic field to contain the hot gas, which was highly unpredictable and would have destroyed whatever it came into contact with.

Song stated that the Chinese project's next objective would be to raise the burning period to 400 and eventually 1,000 seconds. “Magnetic confinement nuclear fusion is developing at the same rate as computer central processing unit chips,” he added.

According to Song, the effort has benefited other areas as well. China's production capacity for superconducting materials has risen 10,000-fold as a result of breakthroughs in fusion research, he claims.

Superconductors are used in a wide range of industries, from transportation to medical equipment, and greater manufacturing helps to drastically lower their price. “Between 60 and 70 per cent of superconducting materials purchased internationally are from China,” Song added.

The Chinese government intends to begin the widespread building of fusion energy facilities by 2060, the deadline for the country to achieve carbon neutrality.