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Chinese “Artificial Sun” gets hotter than the real Sun

16/11/2018
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China have successfully moved one step closer to achieving nuclear fusion, with the latest advances from their Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) - also known as the “artificial sun”. 

China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokomak (EAST) heated hydrogen to over 100 million degrees C
(Image via Sixthtone)

The nickname comes from the intense heat that is generated by the reactor which, in the latest tests, reached over 100 million degrees Celsius (212 million degrees Fahrenheit) - or six times hotter than the centre of the Sun. 

The tokamak reactor consists of a huge metal doughnut, 11 metres tall with a diameter of 8 metres and a total weight of 360 tonnes. It’s exhausted to a hard vacuum, before being injected with hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen is superheated to create a plasma that is then compressed using superconducting magnets. Eventually the plasma gets hot enough and compressed enough that it begins to mimic conditions found in the centre of the Sun and other stars. 

So what is the purpose of the project - beyond showing off a godlike ability to outburn the Sun?

The temperature in the EAST reached 6 times that of the centre of the sun and lasted for 10 seconds
(Image via CASHIPS)

Superheating and compressing plasma to a high enough degree will eventually cause the hydrogen atoms to fuse, which releases an enormous amount of energy. It’s this process which takes place constantly in the heart of stars, generating heat and light throughout the universe. 

Scientists hope that they can eventually create a self-sustaining reaction that will generate more power than it consumes. In theory, generating a safe nuclear fusion power reactor will create a virtually limitless supply of clean energy. 

The benefit is clear when contrasted with nuclear fission - the current method used in power plants. Fission involves creating energy by splitting the nuclei of atoms, while fusion combines them. The issue with fission is that it requires unstable elements and leaves behind dangerous radioactive waste. Fusion is relatively clean. 

However we are still a long way off creating a true nuclear fusion reactor. 

The EAST reactor in China is progressing scientists one step closer to achieving nuclear fusion
(Image via VCG)

The achievement at the EAST reactor was a breakthrough in temperature and density of the particles by using four different heating methods: lower hybrid wave heating (oscillating the ions and electrons in the plasma), electron cyclotron wave heating (using a static magnetic field and a high-frequency electromagnetic field), ion cyclotron resonance heating (accelerating ions in a cyclotron) and neutral beam ion heating (injecting a beam of accelerated neutral particles in to the plasma). 

And all that brought the particles to fusion levels for just 10 seconds.

For EAST scientists, the success was more than just bringing up the temperature. This test allowed them to study plasma so they can better understand how to maintain stability and equilibrium, how to confine and transport it, and how it can interact with energetic particles. 

This valuable data will help them redesign reactors for future projects, hopefully finding a way to maintain the temperature and keep the reaction stable for more than a few seconds, and scale up the technology to one day become commercially viable. 

Hydrogen atoms are superheated and compresssed in a vacuum created within the EAST reactor
(Image via Institute of Plasma Physics Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The successful test here has at least proved that these machines can achieve the temperatures required for nuclear fusion - an accomplishment that can lead the way for further global experimentation in facilities such as France’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the Chinese Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR) and the DEMOnstration Power Station.  

Nuclear fusion may still be a way in to the future, but there are still other innovative energy projects to work on
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Chinese “Artificial Sun” gets hotter than the real Sun - Time to read 4 min
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