China just hit a Nuclear Fusion Milestone
Just last week, we reported that Germany’s new nuclear fusion machine managed to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degree Celsius and sustain a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second.
This was a huge milestone in the decades-long search of controlled nuclear fusion, because if we can generate and hold onto hydrogen plasma for a certain period, we can attach the clean, practically limitless energy that our Sun.
Now physicists in China have announced that their own nuclear fusion machine, called the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), has produced hydrogen plasma at 49.999 million degree Celsius and held onto it for an impressive 102 seconds.
While this is nowhere near the hottest temperature that has been produced by an experiment that honour goes to the Large Harron Collider which hit a whopping 4 trillion degree Celsius back in 2012 the team from China’s Institute of Physical Science in Hefei managed to recreate solar conditions for well over a minute.
Sustaining these incredibly high temperatures for long sufficient to attach the energy produced by the reaction is key to achieving controlled nuclear fusion, as it allow for more steady alignment of the magnetic fields that are used to maneuver the plasma away from the walls of the machine, and the collection of high energy parties and heat energy that are produced as part of the reaction.
Nuclear fission which is what our current nuclear facilities achieve generates energy by splitting the nucleus of an atom into smaller neutrons and nuclei. While fission is super efficient the amount of energy it releases is millions of times more efficient per mass than that of coal management of dangerous radioactive by-product are extremely costly.
That’s what makes nuclear fusion so desirable: it involves producing vast amounts of energy when atoms are complex together at incredibly high temperatures but produces very little radioactive waste or other useless by-products.
The problem is it requires far higher temperatures. While nuclear fission need things to be heated to just a few hundred degrees Celsius, nuclear fusion machines have to recreate conditions on the Sun, which means we are talking a number of million degrees.
In fact because our machines are basically starting their reactions from scratch, we actually need to achieve temperatures far hotter than those approximate to exist in the center of the Sun-the team behind Germany’s US $1 billion stellarator nuclear fusion machine says the ideal temperature is 100 million degrees Celsius.
This is what China’s team was hoping to hit last week, but had to settle for close to 50 million degrees, Stephen Chen from the South China Morning Post reports. Their ultimate goal is to hit 100 million degrees Celsius and sustain the resulting hydrogen plasma for over 1000 seconds or 17 minutes now that their proof of concept experiment is out of the way.
Now we must make it clear that the result coming out of china are based on a statement by the Hefei Institute of Physical Science and until we see a peer reviewed paper detailing how they achieved these temperatures and times, we have to remain sceptical. But if everything checks out we really do have a Bonafide “Battle of the doughnut-shaped nuclear fusion machines” on our hands with the Germans needing to work on their time and the Chinese needing to work on their temperatures.
We are still likely decades away from actually harness nuclear mixture to solve humanity’s energy problems but scientists are making some incredible progress. And we love a bit of healthy competition.
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