China’s ‘artificial sun’ tipped to provide electricity in 10 years if Beijing backs it

·4-min read

China could produce electricity from a proposed “artificial sun” in a decade if the project wins final approval from the government, according to one of the lead scientists.

Construction of a nuclear fusion reactor could be completed by the early 2030s if Beijing gives its backing, Professor Song Yuntao told local media at a carbon control conference in Beijing on Sunday.

Fusion technology, also known as artificial sun, can provide an endless supply of clean energy by simulating the nuclear fusion process in the sun – although the engineering complexity is considerable and international efforts to develop it have hit delays and spiralling costs.

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The government had asked scientists to make preparations for the China Fusion Engineering Testing Reactor (CFETR), including engineering design and building a large testing facility in the city of Hefei. But Song, director of the Institute of Plasma Physics in Hefei, told Beijing News that final approval was still pending.

The aim is for the CFETR to be the first facility that produces electricity with the heat of fusion. That brings with it the challenge of controlling an extremely hot gas, hydrogen, with temperatures inside the reactor expected to reach or exceed 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million Fahrenheit).

In its first stage of operation, it is designed to produce a stable power output – needed to generate electricity – of 200 megawatts, about that of a small coal-fired power plant.

China’s fusion reactor will probably not be the world’s first, with construction nearly complete on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France, which could fire up by 2025.

But after multiple delays since it started in 2007, ITER has become the most expensive international scientific project in history, set to cost the countries involved– including China – between US$45 billion and US$65 billion. And although it will bring the idea of artificial sun to fruition for the first time, the burn it will produce cannot be sustained to generate enough energy for electricity production, as China’s reactor aims to.

Song said China and other countries were supporting and following the progress in France while using the knowledge and technology developed for ITER to enhance their own fusion reactor projects – and the race to build them is heating up.

“The US proposed to generate electricity with pilot nuclear fusion power stations built by government and private companies between 2035 and 2040,” Song said. “The UK proposed to commercialise nuclear fusion energy by 2040.”

China’s artificial sun ‘light years away’ from solving energy crisis

China’s fusion research started with Russian hardware and technology, but it has earned a leading position in the field in recent years, according to Song.

In May, a simulation device in Hefei generated a burning plasma at 150 million degrees Celsius that was maintained at a stable level for over 100 seconds, a world record. Scientists confined the hot gas – which was highly unpredictable and would have destroyed anything it touched – with an extremely strong magnetic field generated by superconductors.

Song said the next goal for the Chinese project would be to increase that burning time to 400 then 1,000 seconds.

“The development of magnetic confinement nuclear fusion is as fast as the development of computer central processing unit chips,” he said.

The work has had benefits in other sectors, too, according to Song. Thanks to advances in fusion research, China’s production capacity for superconducting materials has increased 10,000-fold, he said.

Superconductors are needed in a wide range of sectors, from transport to medical equipment, and increased production helps reduce their price significantly.

“Between 60 and 70 per cent of the superconducting materials overseas are bought from China,” Song said.

The Chinese government plans to start mass construction of fusion energy plants before 2060 – the deadline to meet the country’s carbon neutrality goal.

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