Chinese engineers recently revealed their “artificial sun” fusion reactor broke yet another one of its records, this time sustaining plasma for 403 seconds.
The milestone brings humanity a step closer to realising the near-unlimited potential of nuclear fusion energy. In April, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) surpassed its previous mark of 103 seconds set in May 2021.
It took Chinese researchers a reported 120 000 attempts to complete the near-seven minute experiment. Their efforts were well-rewarded as the fusion reactor reached and went beyond the 300 seconds of steady-state operation necessary to demonstrate the tokamak’s efficiency.
According to the International Thermal Experimental Reactor, a project of which China is also a contributing member, the ratio of thermal power produced by the fusion of hydrogen isotopes (tritium and deuterium) used to trigger and sustain a reaction is represented as Q.
An ideal Fusion Power Operation (FPO) phase is considered to be between 300 and 500 seconds at Q≥10 for 300 to 500 seconds. At this capacity, the reactor generates 500 megawatts of energy for every 50 megawatts it consumes.
Fusion reactors like EAST replicate the manner in which the sun produces its energy and produces zero emissions or radioactive by-products in the process. As a result, fusion has long been considered somewhat of a holy grail in the world of physics and engineering.
The superheated plasma created during the reaction can reach temperatures in excess of one million degrees Celsius, far hotter than any organic compound in the solar system.
In order to contain the plasma within the reactor, Chinese researchers lined the inside of EAST with powerful magnets that prevent the high-energy contents of the reactor from making contact with the tokamak’s walls.
The team’s work had laid a solid foundation from which to build further, Song Yuantao, director of the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state media outlet, Xinhua.
Song went on to highlight the significance of the breakthrough as it illustrated the reactor could run at what he called “high-confinement mode” where both the density and temperature of the plasma are greatly increased, allowing for better operational efficiency moving forward.
EAST has been operating in some capacity or another now since 2006 and is China’s testbed for fusion research.
Chinese researchers working on the country’s next generation of reactors intended to be the world’s first fusion energy demonstrator.
Called the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor, it is expected to begin firing in 2035, according to the technology and science website, Interesting Engineering.