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Chinese scientists hope a new research facility will help them take another step forward in harnessing the power of the sun. Photo: EPA

China’s ‘artificial sun’ project just got a whole lot hotter, scientists say

  • New facility in Sichuan province will enable researchers to recreate the ‘extreme environments’ necessary to harness nuclear fusion
  • Plasma-generating machine capable of producing temperatures 13 times as hot as the sun

A new research facility that will enable Chinese scientists to carry out vital experiments in the development of a nuclear fusion reactor – or so-called artificial sun – is set to open later this year, according to the company behind the project.

The new centre, in Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province, will have at its heart an “HL-2M machine”, which is capable of generating plasma – another name for hot gas – at temperatures of up to 200 million degrees Celsius, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) said in a statement on its website on Thursday.

The ability to generate such intense heat is essential to the fusion process, which is how the sun produces energy, though it operates at a temperature of a mere 15 million degrees.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), currently under construction in southern France, is designed to operate at up to 150 million degrees.

The HL-2M machine will be able to generate plasma as hot as 200 million degrees Celsius, says China National Nuclear Corporation. Photo: Weibo

The development of the Sichuan facility is another step forward in the nation’s push to build the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor by 2021, CNNC said.

“This device [the HL-2M] is a critical platform,” the company said.

China is among the world’s leading players in the development of fusion technology – which has the potential to generate an endless supply of clean energy – and plans to build an experimental reactor as early as 2021, finish an industrial prototype by 2035 and go into large-scale commercial use by 2050.

‘Artificial sun’ galaxies away from solving Earth’s energy needs

The principle challenge for scientists is how to control the energy they produce. In Sichuan, researchers will be able to carry out “unprecedented experiments in extreme environments”, CNNC said.

The HL-2M uses a doughnut-shaped chamber known as tokamak to study how to produce and contain the fusion power.

Electric currents of up to 3 million amps will flow through a 90-tonne copper coil to generate a powerful magnetic field that in turn “contains” the plasma produced by the fusion process and prevents it from causing the facility to go into meltdown.

The coil developed for the HL-2M is among the facility’s key achievements as it has shown immense ability to withstand shocks, the CNNC said.

Scientists hope nuclear fusion might one day provide the answer to the world’s energy needs. Photo: Alamy

Gao Zhe, a physics professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that scientists around the world still had many problems to overcome in the field of nuclear fusion, not least the issue of containing plasma.

Man-made fusion is far less stable than the natural process inside the sun and the hot gas sometimes produces random flares that can break through the magnetic cage and damage the inner wall of the reaction chamber.

New facilities, like the HL-2M, would give researchers more scope to study and find solutions to such issues, Gao said.

“There is no guarantee that all these problems will be solved. But if we don’t do it, the problems will definitely not be solved,” he said.

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Gao said scientists were likely to use the new machine in conjunction with other facilities already in operation, such as the EAST superconducting tokamak in Hefei, capital of the southeast China province of Anhui.

The CNNC said the new facility in Sichuan will also support the development of the ITER project, of which China is a member nation, along with the United States, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The ITER is the world’s largest and costliest international scientific collaboration project, with a price tag of about 20 billion (US$22.5 billion). The construction phase is expected to be completed in 2025.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ray of hope over ‘artificial sun’ research facility