Chinese fusion test reportedly reaches new milestone

February 15, 2016 by Matt Williams, Universe Today
Researchers at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak facility in China have achieved a new milestone in fusion power. Credit:

Fusion power has long been considered to be the holy grail of alternative energy. Clean, abundant power, created through a self-sustaining process where atomic nuclei are fused at extremely high temperatures. Achieving this has been the goal of atomic researchers and physicists for over half a century, but progress has been slow. While the science behind fusion power is solid, the process has not exactly been practical.

In short, fusion can only be considered a viable form of power if the amount of energy used to initiate the reaction is less than the energy produced. Luckily, in recent years, a number of positive steps have been taken towards this goal. The latest comes from China, where researchers at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) recently report that they have achieved a fusion milestone.

Many different fusion concepts have been proposed and tested over the years. Currently, the two most popular designs are the inertial confinement approach, and the tokamak reactor. In the former case, lasers are used to fuse pellets of deuterium fuel to create a . In the latter, the process involves a torus-shaped confinement chamber that uses magnetic fields and an internal current to confine high-energy plasma.

Using a tokamak that has three distinct features – a non-circular cross-section, fully superconducting magnets, and fully actively water cooled plasma facing components (PFCs) – scientists at the EAST facility announced last week that they were able to produce hydrogen gas that was three times hotter than the core of the sun (approx. 50 million °C; 90 million °F), and were able to maintain this temperature for a record-breaking 102 seconds.

Chinese fusion test reportedly reaches new milestone
The EAST facility’s tokamak reactor, part of the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei. Credit:

This is no small accomplishment, as confinement and sustained temperatures are essential to creating . Once initiated, need to be able to keep the reaction going for a long period of time, mainly because the amount of energy required to initiate it is considerable. But of course, sustaining and confining such high-energy plasma is quite difficult, and potentially dangerous.

Being able to sustain high-energy plasma for over a minute and a half places the EAST facility, which is part of the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei in Jiangshu, a step ahead in the global fusion race. By recreating the stable conditions under which fusion naturally occurs – i.e. in the sun's interior – humanity could be one step closer to the dream of clean and virtually limitless energy.

But of course, there is some skepticism towards this claim. So far, there has only been the announcement made by the Institute of Physical Science to go on. And until such time as peer-reviewed results are provided, the claim will remain unconfirmed. However, should their results be confirmed, it will mean that there is likely to be some competition to see who can get increasingly good results. And that competition may already be on!

Chinese fusion test reportedly reaches new milestone
The spherical tokamak MAST reactor, at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Credit: CCFE

Just a few days before the EAST facility announced this milestone, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany made an announcement of their own. Here, researchers claimed that the Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator – the largest fusion reactor of its kind – had successfully managed to produce and sustain hydrogen plasma for the first time.

Similar in design to a tokamak, a stellerator employs twisted rings and external magnets to confine plasma. As one of the best known as examples of a stellarator, the Wendelstein 7-X was able to heat hydrogen gas to a temperature of 80 million degrees Celsius, and sustain that plasma cloud for a quarter of a second. In short, they achieved a reaction that produced more energy, but for much less time.

In the coming years, more news is expected on the fusion front as projects like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) go online. Located in the south of France, ITER will employ the world's largest experimental and will be the biggest experiment in fusion to date. The EAST facility has indicated that it intends to be directly involved in ITER and will lend their experience and expertise.

Though we are still many years away from fusion reactors solving all of our energy concerns, it is good to know that we are taking the appropriate steps towards making it a reality. Who knows? Someday, our children (or grandchildren) may look back at the early 21st century as the "pre- era" and wonder how it is we ever managed to get by!

Explore further: German physicists see landmark in nuclear fusion quest

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not rated yet Feb 15, 2016
Without knowing if this is the result of a well confined H mode plasma; or just a massive external heating effort with matching massive internal PFC cooling effort, this report is worthless.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2016
I think we are wrong about fusion, i.e. m c^2 = E is incorrect.
Mark Thomas
1 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2016
EyeNStein: "this report is worthless."

More details would be nice, but if you understand H mode you probably understand we need any and all the progress we can get in this field. Ten years after coming to agreement in 2006, ITER still won't be ready for D-T plasma until 2027, at best. This is consistent with ITER's apparent role of slowing progress in fusion science. We could leapfrog ITER by using modern superconductors for better confinement.

"While several physics and technology challenges remain to be solved, the world-wide experience from tokamak experiments provides the basis to support a new path of exploration into compact, power producing reactors using the newly available high-temperature, high-magnetic-field superconducting technology."

5 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2016
I think we are wrong about fusion, i.e. m c^2 = E is incorrect.

Then you must have missed all the collider experiments where fusion happened. E=mc^2 worked out perfectly fine in all of these. (We also use E=mc^2 in medical PET scanners every day - and it has bever failed, yet)

So unless you have some eathshaking revelation to tell us you usual..wrong.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2016
Yeah, as MarkThomas said, ITER's start date has been pushed to 2026. Talking about a machine which won't be on-line for another 10 years is the worst kind of vaporware hype. Just imagine how much more we will learn between now and then. (and how likely that information is to delay or even cancel ITER, at least it will make it obsolete even before it gets off the drawing board (if that ever happens).)
5 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2016
Agreed "worthless" is an overstatement.
But on the basis of this article it impossible to tell the difference between a well controlled tokamak or a massively overcooked/overcooled microwave or neutral beam heated system.

Some efficiency indication of MW per m^3 per MK temperature is needed to stop these non-fusing tokamaks becoming a race to the biggest PFC cooling system / biggest waste heat dump, in pursuit of MK temperature figures.

Not that efficient PFC cooling to drive turbines isn't a useful achievement if the overall projected 'Q' would be high enough to be worthwhile.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2016
How embarrassing if Andrea Rossi's clean, inexpensive e-Cat technology beats them all to the punch about a month from now.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2016
How embarrassing if Andrea Rossi's clean, inexpensive e-Cat technology beats them all to the punch about a month from now.

Don't hold your breath. Rossis e-cat has been claiming to "beat them to the punch about a month from now" for well over 15 years.

I've heard of vapor-ware...but Rossi's stuff really deserves a new qualifier of it's own. It gives vapor-ware a bad name. (Maybe "Rossi-ware"?)

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