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China fires up nuclear fusion reactor

(ATF) China has reportedly powered up its “artificial sun” nuclear fusion reactor for the first time, according to state media, which said this was a great advance in the country’s nuclear power research capability.

The HL-2M Tokamak reactor in Chengdu in southwestern Sichuan province is China’s largest and most advanced nuclear fusion device for experimental research.

Scientists hope that the reactor can potentially unlock a powerful clean energy source.

The Chengdu device, which was completed last year, uses a powerful magnetic field to fuse hot plasma and can reach temperatures of over 150 million degrees Celsius, according to the People’s Daily. That is approximately 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.

It is often called an “artificial sun” on account of the enormous heat and power it produces.

“The development of nuclear fusion energy is not only a way to solve China’s strategic energy needs, but also has great significance for the future sustainable development of China’s energy and national economy,” the People’s Daily report said.

Technical personnel check the HL-2M nuclear fusion device at a research laboratory in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, on December 4, 2020. This “artificial sun” has just been powered up for the first time, state media reported on December 4. AFP pic.

Collaboration with France

Chinese scientists have been working on developing smaller versions of the nuclear fusion reactor since 2006.

The Chinese researchers plan to use the device in collaboration with scientists working on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – the world’s largest nuclear fusion research project based in France, which is expected to be completed in 2025. 

Construction of the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR) is planned for the 2020s as a demonstration of the feasibility of large-scale fusion power generation.

The project would include two phases of operation, scientists have said. The first aims to demonstrate steady-state operation and tritium breeding. The second would include an update of the system to obtain fusion power production of 1 Gigawatt or 1000 Megawatts (compared to ITER‘s 500 MW) and a fusion gain higher than 12, with tritium self-sufficiency.

Fusion is considered the Holy Grail of energy and is what powers our sun.

It merges atomic nuclei to create massive amounts of energy – the opposite of the fission process used in atomic weapons and nuclear power plants, which splits them into fragments.

Unlike fission, fusion emits no greenhouse gases and carries less risk of accidents or the theft of atomic material.

But achieving fusion is both extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive, with the total cost of ITER is estimated at $22.5 billion.

With reporting by AFP.

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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years and has a family in Bangkok.

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