China's 'artificial sun' broke clean energy records, as scientists tout nuclear fusion as the ‘ultimate energy’ for the future of humanity.
China’s nuclear fusion reactor has made headlines this month after producing an ‘artificial sun’ that was five times hotter than the real thing.
The device broke world records after sustaining a nuclear reaction at 70 million degrees Celsius (158 million degrees Fahrenheit) for more than 17 minutes, state media Xinhua reported.
The ‘artificial sun’ is a project dubbed the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), and is operated at a research facility in China’s Heifei city in Anhui Province.
Here’s what we know so far:
It’s not actually a ‘sun’
Unlike its name suggests, or fake Twitter videos would have you believe, EAST is not a floating sphere of light that was launched into the sky.
It is in fact a donut-shaped reactor chamber where heated-up plasma is trapped with a powerful magnetic field.
The goal of this ‘sun’ is not to supply light or heat, but instead an enormous amount of clean energy that researchers hope to harvest to power cities.
EAST gets its nickname 'artificial sun’ because this process of energy-generation, known as nuclear fusion, replicates the sun's physics.
The process uses atomic nuclei to generate large amounts of energy into electricity, by merging hydrogen atoms to create helium.
It’s smashing records
Before EAST, France's Tore Supra tokamak held the world record for the longest plasma duration time of any tokamak reactor at 6.5 minutes in 2003.
South Korea’s Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) reactor set a world record in 2016 by maintaining 50 million degrees Celsius (90 million degrees Fahrenheit) for 70 seconds.
EAST broke KSTAR’s record in 2021 sustaining around 119 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) for 102 seconds.
EAST also set another record in May last year by running for 101 seconds at an unprecedented 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit).
In contrast, the core of the actual sun is around 15 million degrees Celsius (27 million degrees Fahrenheit).
It’s expanding clean energy options
Nuclear fusion produces no greenhouse gases and leaves no radioactive waste.
Scientists at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science touted the success of EAST in expanding the country’s clean energy options.
“As opposed to fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, which are in danger of being exhausted and pose a threat to the environment, raw materials required for the ‘artificial sun’ are almost unlimited on earth,” says researcher Gong Xianzu in a press release.
“Therefore, fusion energy is considered the ideal ‘ultimate energy’ for the future of humanity.”
It’s costly but worth it
EAST is estimated to cost China more than $1 trillion by the experiment’s end in June.
It’s part of a collaboration project based in France known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) which is set to be the world’s largest nuclear reactor.
Alongside China, 35 countries are participating in the project including the entire European Union, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.
ITER contains the world's most powerful magnet, able to produce a magnetic field 280,000 times stronger than Earth’s own field, according to Live Science.
The global fusion reactor is expected to run in 2025.
However, China isn’t stopping at EAST, the country is planning to complete a new Tokamak fusion device by the early 2030s.