Recently, China successfully tested its “artificial sun”, a nuclear fusion reactor that could generate energy for many years to come if it can be made more sustainable. Fusion is a very expensive process, but China’s tests could help researchers in their search for ways to reduce costs.
China’s “artificial sun” is called HL-2M, a tokamak fusion reactor located at the Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) in Chengdu, China. The reactor generates power by applying powerful magnetic fields to hydrogen to compress it until it creates a plasma that can reach temperatures of more than 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the nucleus of the Sun, and generate enormous amounts of energy when the atoms fuse together. The plasma is contained with magnets and supercooling technology.
In 2018, the tokamak reached 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, or about 82 million degrees Celsius. But back then, EAST could only sustain the plasma for around 10 seconds.
Why does the temperature have to be so extraordinarily hot? The sun, after all, operates at “just” 15 million degrees Celsius. But it also has a huge advantage because of its enormous size, getting an assist from gravity that helps to smash its atoms together. Instead of using gravity, Earthbound tokamaks must heat to many millions more degrees in order to make the atoms amenable to the smash.
While the artificial sun’s new record is great, it’s still a very long way from a self-sustaining plasma reaction, or “ignition.” That will involve likely even higher temperatures
ITER’s goal is to determine the technological and economic viability of nuclear fusion by magnetic confinement as a large-scale energy source without de CO2 emissions, although it still does not produce electricity.
It will be the first fusion site capable of producing net energy and maintain the fusion process over long periods of time, as well as test the necessary materials and technology. This is a previous stage to the construction of a commercial demonstration site, which is expected to begin operation by 2025.