“Artifical sun” fusion reactor completed

BEIJING, March 1 — China has completed construction of a thermonuclear fusion reactor, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced on Thursday.

“The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion reactor has obtained state ratification for test results, use of funds, operational management and data authenticity,” said a 34-person joint ratification committee at the CAS news conference.

The 34-person committee mainly consists of officials and experts with CAS, the State Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Artificial sun

The EAST fusion reactor was tested earlier this month by CAS’s Institute of Plasma Physics in central China’s Anhui Province, and succeeded in generating an electrical current of 250 kiloamperes for five seconds.

Unlike traditional nuclear fission reactors, which split atoms to create energy and produce dangerous radioactive waste, the EAST uses nuclear fusion to compress atoms at extremely high temperatures to generate energy that would produce very little pollution.

During the February experiment, deuterium and tritium atoms were forced together at a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius. At that temperature, the super heated plasma, which is neither a gas, a liquid nor a solid, should begin to give off its own energy, scientists explained.

The process replicates the energy generating process of the sun, and has led scientists to nickname the reactor “the artificial sun”.

The device is planned to eventually create a plasma lasting 1,000 consecutive seconds, the longest a fusion reactor would ever have run.

Some experts have cast doubt on whether it can produce more energy than it consumes, the main obstacle to making fusion commercially viable.

But Wan Yuanxi, general manager of EAST, said it had been proved that the energy input-output ratio of a fusion reactor could reach 1:1.25. With the development of the technology, the ratio was expected to increase to 1:50 in the future.

The main purpose of EAST was to prove that the reactor can produce consecutive and stable plasma, Wan said. About 2,000 scientists in China are involved in the project.

The EAST is part of the EUR4.6 billion (RMB47 billion) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which China joined in 2003 and which is the largest international program dedicated to experiments in thermonuclear fusion.

Of the six partners involved in this ambitious plan, the European Union will cover 50% of the total budget. The remaining five, the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea and China, will pay 10% each.

“The EAST is the only prototype nearest to the ITER and, thus, it can serve ITER advanced research in terms of engineering technology and physics,” said Wan.

But the most optimistic estimation on first commercialization of the ITER said it needs at least half a century.

About James Ockenden (223 Articles)
A writer covering international energy and power markets since 1996
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