Nuclear fusion is the reaction that occurs at the heart of the sun, generating potentially limitless amounts of energy. It works by combining two lightweight atoms into a single, larger one. When this happens, massive amounts of energy are given off.
Our sun fuses hydrogen atoms into helium at a rate of 620 million metric tonnes a second, creating the light and heat we all need to survive.
While the concept of nuclear fusion has been around for almost a hundred years, we’ve never been able to generate enough energy to successfully replicate the process in a sustainable and safe way.
However, it seems that China is on the verge of harnessing nuclear fusion for energy for the first time.
This could change the world.
Why Would Need Nuclear Fusion?
We currently get the majority of our energy from fossil fuels and nuclear fission. While there have been great strides made in renewable energy over the last decade, we are still heading for an energy shortage if we don’t start generating more power for an exploding population. Increasing urbanisation and new technology like cryptocurrency are driving up power demands all over the world, and nuclear fusion could help keep the lights on.
Why Don’t We Have Nuclear Fusion Already?
We have been able to harness fusion power for weapons since the 1940s. The famous Manhattan Project eventually lead to successful fusion-bomb tests in 1952. However, creating fusion reactors is far more difficult, and the technology has been in development for decades. Here are the main three reasons why creating a fusion reactor is so difficult:
Starting a fusion reaction takes a massive amount of energy. The atoms are positively charged, which means they will actively repel each other when they come into contact. It takes lots of energy to move the atoms at such a high speed that they can’t avoid each other, smashing into each other and fusing. The energy used to power the reactor must be exceeded by the power it generates – overwise there’s simply no point.
Another issue is the storage of the energy if we were able to create it. Fusion can be exothermic, which means large amounts of energy are given off as heat as soon as fusion occurs. If we were to achieve nuclear fusion, there would be a massive surge of energy that would need to be contained and stored safely.
Unsurprisingly, this all costs a lot of money. $890 million has been pledged for China’s EAST project. The cost for the international initiative of which the EAST project is a part of is estimated to cost $22.5 billion. Further experimentation will likely run into the millions, as there is still a long way to go before fusion is a realistic goal for powering cities.
What Is China’s EAST Fusion Reactor?
China is working on a fusion reactor that can reach temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius. That’s six times hotter than our sun. It’s been successfully tested, and operated for 10 seconds before shutting down. Running the reactor for those ten seconds took 10 megawatts of power – enough to power over 1,500 homes for a year.
The reactor has been designated ‘Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak’. A tokamak is a cylindrical accelerator that forms the body of the reactor, and uses a powerful magnetic field to heat and contain the plasma needed for the reaction.
The current iteration is very small, designed purely as an experiment. A larger reactor, designed to power an entire city, would require even more power.
What Would This Mean For the Energy Market?
If China can create long-term sustainable fusion, it would transform the energy market overnight. The project aims to be fully functional by 2050, and is already gaining publicity and funding. EAST is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which is funded by the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the US.
Widespread fusion power would generate more energy than we currently have, and with significantly less waste and pollution. Fusion could potentially add massive amounts of power to existing grids, and once infrastructure was implemented to facilitate the switch, we could essentially abandon fossil fuels.
Fusion power is still a long way off, but this is the first step towards an exciting future with enough clean power for the entire planet.