In today’s world, there’s an ongoing effort to find realistic and persistent sources of limitless clean energy. Chinese researchers are working hard on a quest to make their country a leading destination for it.
The researchers are working with a nuclear fusion reactor in Anhui, located in China’s Eastern region, and hope to have a fully functioning nuclear fusion power plant by 2050.
Known as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), people sometimes call the fusion reactor an “artificial sun” while recognizing the amount of heat and power it produces.
Nuclear fusion refers to a process where the heat from nuclear fusion reactions — where two lightweight atoms with positive charges combine into a bigger one — generate electricity. The fusion reactor captures that energy.
A couple of notable firsts
EAST has a history of making headlines with its achievements. In 2017, it attracted attention for being the first nuclear fusion facility in the world that sustained specific conditions necessary for fusion longer than 100 seconds.
Then, in November 2018, another first made it exceptionally clear why some people think of the EAST as being like the sun. It reached a temperature of more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, which is six times hotter than the sun’s core.
The extreme heat is a feat that’s integral to the overall success of this project. Since the atoms both have positive charges, they repel each other. Scientists then have to figure out ways to make them collide.
Heat increases the chances of collisions because atoms move faster when they heat up. So, when EAST got hot enough in that case, it sustained nuclear fusion for about 10 seconds.
EAST is a testbed
It’s important to clarify here that scientists don’t think EAST itself solely represents the world’s clean energy future. The doughnut-shaped reactor is only a few meters across. However, scientists hope that the things they learn from it will help further limitless clean energy advancements.
The scientists working on this project know they must overcome numerous obstacles. One of them is the need to figure out how to make a nuclear fusion reactor offer more energy than what’s required to heat it up, and that milestone still seems far away.
To put things in perspective, consider that the instance where the reactor surpassed 180 million degrees required more than 10 megawatts — which could power 1,640 U.S. homes for a year.
EAST wouldn’t be the reactor for the power plant that may operate by 2050. Instead, the Chinese researchers plan to build a separate one for that goal of commercial viability.
Reports say financial sources offered 6 billion yuan, or the equivalent of $890 million, for the proposed power plant. If experts can figure out how to make it work, the power plant and others like it could change how people get energy.
Thinking about the future
Nuclear fusion energy promises emissions-free, endlessly available power with less of the risks associated with today’s power plants. Once more progress happens, scientists might apply it to other uses in the energy sector, too.
For example, today’s portable energy solutions give power to construction sites, festival grounds, disaster recovery zones and more. It’d certainly be advantageous to harness clean energy for generators, as well.
Thanks in part to EAST, China is part of a much larger project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The multibillion-dollar collaborative effort of 35 countries, ITER involves making a nuclear reactor in France. It’ll hopefully be the first device of its kind that can maintain fusion for long periods. It’ll also investigate using numerous disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, to move nuclear fusion energy forward.
Some of the findings at EAST and other nuclear fusion sites will give ITER researchers a better idea of what’s feasible and what won’t work. Chinese representatives acknowledge that nuclear fusion test sites in Japan and the United States are further along overall with some aspects of their goals.
With EAST, China hopes to reassert itself as a nation not content to play catch-up with other countries striving for limitless clean energy. It wants to be one of the leading players in the crucial fight to find more sustainable energy sources.
Potential exists, but patience is necessary
Some nuclear fusion experts think people could see this option emerging as a major source of power within decades, and that in itself is exciting. However, the extraordinary costs and the fact that scientists have not yet determined how to make fusion power persist long enough without being prohibitively energy-intensive are some of the barriers.
Those obstacles mean people must be patient as developments continue, but they should not feel discouraged and believe nuclear fusion is wholly unrealistic as a potential power source.