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China: Scientists strive to light up ‘artificial sun’ for thermonuclear power

The efforts continue after decades of work by Chinese scientists, who dreamed to “build a sun” as far back as 1985, when a group of 35 industrial nations and blocs including China, the European Union, India, Japan, and Russia agreed on building the world’s first fusion device – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Designed to be the first fusion device to test the integrated technologies, materials, and physics regimes necessary for the commercial production of fusion-based electricity, ITER is expected to bring a huge energy revolution once realized.

“If we succeed, one liter of seawater after nuclear fusion can produce energy equal to 300 liters of gasoline. If we can build a fusion power plant in the future successfully, we will be able to provide unlimited energy to the people,” said Song Yuntao, deputy director of the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ASIPP).

As one of the major components of ITER, China officially started to build the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), dubbed the “artificial sun”, a controllable fusion reactor apparatus designed to generate energy by mimicking the nuclear fusion process of the real sun, in 1999.

But as soon as the EAST project started, scientists encountered some real troubles. “At the early stage of the project, the United States agreed to provide superconducting materials for us. But then they refused to give that to us, how could we build the experimental advanced superconducting Tokamak without the superconducting material? We were all dumbfounded,” Song said.

There was no way a superconducting device could be built without the all-important superconducting material. So scientists were left with no choice but to turn this disappointment into a driving force to up their game and develop their own superconducting material technology.

Within only a few years, Chinese scientists overcame a series of technical difficulties and developed high-quality superconducting materials that could not only satisfy China’s own needs, but also fulfill high export demands.

“We are responsible for providing the superconductors to the ITER. After completion, we will transport them to Cadarache in France by sea. They will be assembled in the ITER device,” said Qin Jinggang, deputy director of ASIPP’s department of Application of Superconducting Engineering.

In addition to superconducting materials, other key links on the industry chain of nuclear fusion have also made great leaps forward.

“We’ve tackled a series of key technological issues to grasp core technology related to the construction of the fusion reactor in the future. For example, superconducting technology, superconducting joints, superconducting wiring, large power supply, divertor system and the large magnet system. We are currently producing the world’s largest superconducting magnet for the European Union, while most superconducting materials in the world are from China,” said Song.

“Without our previous difficulties, and the painful research and development process, there’s no way we can achieve what you see today. We must grasp techniques in our own hands firmly, and it’s not feasible to ask or beg others for them,” he added.

According to ITER’s plan, the construction of the “artificial sun” will be completed by 2025, and the commercial uses of fusion power are expected to become available by around 2050.

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