China is beating the drum for faster fusion energy results

Omar Adan

Global Courant

The Chinese government is urging the country’s fusion energy physicists to redouble and accelerate their efforts in view of recent major breakthroughs by US and Japanese scientists.

Chinese state media reported that Science and Technology Minister Wang Zhigang inspected the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) experimental fusion reactor and met with local scientists from the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science (HFIPS) where it is housed earlier this month.

Wang did not say whether the Chinese government will allocate more money to fusion projects, although it is expected that if scientists develop good proposals with clear goals, the government will direct state-owned companies to invest.

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“How can scientific technology be applied in energy engineering? At what stage is our fusion energy technology?” Wang, who studied telecommunications at Xidian University from 1978-1982, early physicists in a closed-door forum on June 7.

Wang said that Chinese scientists should study the importance of party secretary Xi Jinping speech about China’s goal of technological self-sufficiency and try to realize the potential of fusion power.

“We need to discuss which fusion technology we are going to use. Magnetic confinement fusion, fusion-fission hybrid or hydrogen-boron fusion have their pros and cons and timeframes for breakthroughs,” he said. to do in the following steps.

Fusion of magnetic confinement is what most countries, including China, are currently pursuing. Plasma particles flow and fuse in the magnetic field of a tokamaka doughnut-shaped machine first developed by Soviet scientists in 1958.

Fusion-fission hybrid is similar, but the fast neutron created by fusion will hit and split uranium-238 or thorium-232, creating nuclear waste. This reaction can be seen in the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. Some scientists have tried to use this technology to reduce nuclear waste.

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Hydrogen-boron fusionn combines proton and boron to become helium and release energy. It was reached in Japan in February Large spiral devicewhich is similar to a tokamak but as the name suggests has a spiral shape.

Wan Yuanxi, an 84-year-old academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said China has already proven that it is feasible to use a tokamak to develop fusion power and that the next step is to achieve power generation.

Wan said China should invest more in scientific research, develop nuclear technologies and build related infrastructure, while establishing a clear roadmap with improved regulations to realize the use of fusion energy as soon as possible.

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Since the 1970s, China has built small and medium-sized tokamaks, such as the HL-1 and HL-1M at the Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) in Chengdu and the HT-6B and HT-6M at the Institute of Plasma Physics (ASIPP) from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Hefei.

The government had included a hybrid fusion-fission project in its 863 program, a high-tech development plan that was launched in 1987 but ended the project in 2000.

In 2006, China joined France-based International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) – the world’s largest fusion project supported by the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US. The stated goals are to begin deuterium-tritium operations by 2035 and to bring power generation to commercial use by 2050.

China agreed in 2006 to assume 10% of the joint effort’s scientific research tasks and launched the EAST (HT-7U) that same year.

A robot in the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST). Photo: Chinese Academy of Sciences

In May 2021, the EAST achieved 101 seconds of steady-state high-confinement mode (H-mode) operation at 120 million degrees. In December 2021, it maintained a stable plasma at 70 million degrees for 1056 seconds. On April 12 this year, it reached the world’s first 403 seconds steady-state H-mode plasma.

By comparison, the France-based Tungsten Environment in Steady-state Tokamak (WEST), formerly called Tore Supra, achieved 390 seconds at 70 million degrees in 2003. Japan’s JT-60SA achieved 28.6 seconds at 100 million degrees in 2006. It supported plasmas up to 200 million degrees for 100 seconds. It can reach up to 522 million degrees.

Li Jiangang, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a physicist at ASIPP, said his team has failed experiments at least 50,000 times over the past 20 years. Li said it is a long process to raise temperatures in the EAST from several million degrees to more than 100 million degrees.

Song Yuntao, director of ASIPP, said the unit has worked with 120 fusion research institutes from 45 countries in the past and is visited by about 500 foreign experts annually. Chinese media said EAST owns 2,000 patents and stuff 80% of key components and raw materials are supplied by Chinese firms.

On December 13 last year, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) reaches a net energy gain from delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to a target, an experiment that produced 3.15 MJ of fusion energy.

The DOE said the experiment demonstrated a fundamental scientific basis for inertial fusion energy for the first time. Scientists have said that if a reactor can achieve 10 firings per second, fusion power generation is possible. Media reports said the LLNL experiment used about 200 lasers and did not use a tokamak to enable a fusion reaction.

To create fusion ignition, laser energy is converted to X-rays in the hohlraum, which then compress a fuel capsule until it implodes, creating a high-temperature, high-pressure plasma. Photo: LLNL

Last month, Helion Energy, a US startup backed by Sam Altman, who also invested in artificial intelligence firm OpenAI, said Helion plans to provide Microsoft with 50 megawatts of fusion electricity by 2028. The company said it will use a proprietary tool called Polaris, which focuses two laser beams at each other to create plasmas.

“The ignition of the LLNL has an important significance as it is a great step for humanity to realize fusion energy,” a Guangdong-based technology columnist wrote in a article. “But there is still a long way to go before people can actually use fusion energy.”

Citing a CNN report, the columnist said the amount of energy produced by the ignition was still small, comparable to just enough to boil 10 kettles of water. He claimed that the US spent a decade and several billion dollars to achieve such a small ignition, showing how difficult the process is.

He also says people shouldn’t directly compare the progress of the US and China as the latter will use a different method of ignition.

Last September, Peng Xianjue, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying that fusion power will be available in China by 2028. In fact, he was referring to one fission-fusion hybrid plant in Chengdu, no pure hydrogen fusion.

Read: China is going to make its own quantum computer refrigerators

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