Sunday, May 16

China’s quest for clean and limitless energy heats up


This handout picture released by Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Plasma Physics, shows the East device, also known as the ‘artificial sun’, at a laboratory in Hefei, east China’s Anhui province. — AFP photo

HEFEI, China: A ground-breaking fusion reactor built by Chinese scientists is underscoring Beijing’s determination to be at the core of clean energy technology, as it eyes a fully-functioning plant by 2050.

Sometimes called an ‘artificial sun’ for the sheer heat and power it produces, the doughnut-shaped Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (East) that juts out on a spit of land into a lake in eastern Anhui province, has notched up a succession of firsts.

Most recently in November, it became the first facility in the world to generate 100 million degrees Celsius – six times as hot as the sun’s core.

Such mind-boggling temperatures are crucial to achieving sustainable nuclear fusion reactions, which promise an inexhaustible energy source.

East’s main reactor stands within a concrete structure, with pipes and cables spread outward like spokes that connect to a jumble of censors and other equipment encircling the core. A red Chinese flag stands on top of the reactor.

“We are hoping to expand international cooperation through this device (East) and make Chinese contributions to mankind’s future use of nuclear fusion,” said Song Yuntao, a top official involved in the project, on a recent tour of the facility.

China is also aiming to build a separate fusion reactor that could begin generating commercially viable fusion power by mid-century, he added.

Some six billion yuan (US$890 million) has been promised for the ambitious project.

East is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) project, which seeks to prove the feasibility of fusion power.

Funded and run by the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the US, the multi-billion-dollar project’s centrepiece will be a giant cylindrical fusion device, called a tokamak.

Now under construction in Provence in southern France, it will incorporate parts developed at the East and other sites, and draw on their research findings.

Fusion is considered the Holy Grail of energy and is what powers our sun.

It merges atomic nuclei to create massive amounts of energy – the opposite of the fission process used in atomic weapons and nuclear power plants, which splits them into fragments. — AFP