China Has Made An 'Artificial Sun' Six And A Half Times Hotter Than The Real One

China Has Made An 'Artificial Sun' Six And A Half Times Hotter Than The Real One

The ‘artificial sun’ aptly-named EAST, an ambitious Chinese scientific project initiated in 2006, has reached an unprecedented temperature record: 100 million degrees Celsius. More than six and a half times the 15 million that blaze in the heart of our star... A first that probably announces the mastery, one day, of the Holy grail of energy production: nuclear fusion.

A little under fifteen million degrees Celsius is the temperature that reigns in the heart of our star, the Sun. A rather stuffy atmosphere, but that would almost be like a refrigerator in front of that - more than six and a half times higher - reached in what can be described as an ‘artificial sun’: 100 million degrees Celsius. Scorching... even suffocating!

This ‘artificial sun’ called EAST, for Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, is the work of China. Local scientists, supported by specialists from around the world, have been working since 2006 to design and build this ‘tokamak’, a Russian term for a magnetic confinement chamber in which a plasma is generated. The purpose of this type of installation: to master, one day, the scientific grail of nuclear fusion.

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As they announced recently, scientists from the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASHIPS) and their colleagues have come closer to it, reaching this unprecedented temperature record of 100 million degrees and with a discharge pulse of 100 seconds.

A monstrous power

To achieve this, no less than 10 megawatts of electric power had been needed, as much as that which can be generated by three onshore wind turbines. A colossal energy that scientists have been able to control only at the cost of a clever control of the reactions involved in the installation.

In the Chinese ‘Tokamak’, it is indeed the magnetic fields induced by the displacement of the plasma injected into the chamber that maintains its movement. At its heart, it is a rather unstable reaction, but with a much higher temperature. As one of the world’s first achievements of its kind, this experiment therefore opens the way towards what many consider a clean and inexhaustible way of producing energy: nuclear fusion.

‘This is undoubtedly a significant step forward for China's nuclear fusion programme and a significant development for the world,’ commented ABC News Australia's Matthew Hole, assistant professor at Australian National University. ‘The benefit is simple in that it allows [continuous] energy production on a very large scale, with zero greenhouse gas emissions and no long-lived radioactive waste.’

A technology still in its infancy

Nevertheless, many obstacles still have to be overcome before reaching this goal. Quoted by the Xinhua News Agency, the specialist Zhang Tiankan pointed out that scientists should, if they wish to go further, raise the temperature to ‘hundreds of millions of degrees’ and extend ‘the pulse to thousands of seconds’. They will also have to improve the controllability of the reaction.

In addition to the technical challenge, the main obstacle to the development of this technology remains the ‘fuel’ necessary for its implementation: tritium. It is an isotope of hydrogen much less abundant on Earth than the nuclide with which it shares the same number of protons: 1 atom of tritium for 1018 atoms of hydrogen, as the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) underlines in its book White Tritium, published in 2010. Not as easy to find as oil...

Although it moves at great speed, science still seems a few light-years away from lastingly surpassing our precious star, the Sun.

• Abbie Marshall
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