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China’s quest for Fusion energy might become a reality in 2020

The country is expecting its “Artificial Sun” to be operational within the year

Our Sun is one of the most sustainable sources of energy. As the World moves towards more renewable sources of energy, we are finding more ways to harness its limitless potential. The Sun produces this energy by a process called Nuclear Fusion, where hydrogen nuclei combine to form helium, producing vast swaths of solar energy.

The fission reaction that we currently use to produce nuclear energy here on Earth produces a much lower amount and can have devastating consequences if there is a radiation leak — case in point the Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) & Fukushima (Japan, 2011) meltdowns.

This begs the question then why have we not opted for the safer alternative of Nuclear Fusion. The simple answer is that the naturally occurring process on our star is not easy to replicate. The process of joining two lighter atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus releases massive amounts of energy and the process is unstable and difficult to control.

Scientists have been taking a stab at it for a while now. Earlier this summer, Physicists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a “Mini Sun” to better understand the processes going on on our star.

Chinese Scientists have been working on producing their own “Artificial Sun” via a nuclear fusion device — called the HL-2M Tokamak, it is part of the nation’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak project which has been operational since 2006, as reported by NewsWeek.

Earlier in March of 2019, the researchers had predicted the completion of the project before the end of the year. As we have moved to the new year, one of the scientists working on the project has now updated that the device should be operational in 2020.

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A Simplistic View of Nuclear Fusion

“HL-2M will provide researchers with valuable data on the compatibility of high-performance fusion plasmas with approaches to more effectively handle the heat and particles exhausted from the core of the device. This is one of the biggest issues facing the development of a commercial fusion reactor.” ~Physicist James Harrison

The coil system on the device was installed last June and HL-2M should be able to achieve temperatures of over 200 million degrees Celsius — which is about 13x hotter than the center of the sun. This is a major milestone as the previous devices developed for the experiment achieved a 100 million degrees Celsius.

The device will replicate the nuclear fusion reaction by heating two types of hydrogen — both deuterium & tritium, which act as fuel are heated to temperatures over 100 million degrees Celsius. At this temperature, they are converted to plasma.

The biggest challenge, however, is the stabilization of this super-hot plasma so those fusion reactions can take place and energy can be released. Also, the plasma tends to produce bursts much like the solar flares that we see on the Sun. These bursts can damage the device if it touches the reactor walls.

Researchers are trying to stabilize the plasma via a magnetic field produced by a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Although a stable nuclear fusion has been achieved, the power required to produce these reactions is still greater than the energy produced by the resulting reactions.

HL-2M Tokamak has an added advantage over other such devices with the flexibility of its magnetic field. Testing of the first stage of HL-2M will involve checking individual systems before the final integration to start producing plasmas.

Fusion power has been a holy grail for energy researchers for decades. If the scientists are eventually able to control the reaction and stabilize plasma for long enough duration to produce energy, we may be at the doorstep of a near-limitless source of clean energy.

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