China: Creating An Artificial Sun on Earth

China: Creating An Artificial Sun on Earth
Bright Sun against dark starry sky in Solar System, elements of this image furnished by NASA

Nuclear fusion has long been the unattainable dream of clean energy. Unlike nuclear fission, it creates no greenhouse gases or waste. Nuclear fusion is the same process powering the sun. According to Merriam-Webster, it is the fusing of two atomic nuclei to form a heavier nuclei, resulting in the release of an enormous amount of energy. It’s the opposite of nuclear fission, which is widely used today. Fission is the process of splitting atoms. This splitting releases heat energy that is, in turn, used to heat water and ultimately to create electricity.

Ten Times Hotter Than the Sun

And, like the sun, unbelievable amounts of heat are required to make nuclear fusion work. China’s nuclear fusion reactor, which they call the “artificial sun,” will reach temperatures of up to 270 million℉. That is ten times hotter than the core of the sun. This is one of the main problems of nuclear fusion. No man-made substance would be able to contain such heat. The super-heated plasma where the fusion occurs is held in the middle of the reactor by supercooled electromagnets. Chinese scientists had been experimenting since 2006 on how to create a magnetic field strong enough to hold the plasma in place. 

Nuclear Fusion: Clean but not Cheap

China’s Artificial Sun is not the only nuclear fusion reactor being built. An even larger reactor is being constructed at Marseille in the south of France. Thirty-three countries, including China, have come together to get it built. As of summer 2019, it was 65% complete. Once completed, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) will be the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor. The project is expected to be another ten years from completion, and with the setbacks in every area of the world due to COVID-19 panic, it is likely to be even longer away than that.

The reactor in China is going to provide technical information for the ITER project. But don’t expect to see these fusion reactors to start popping up around the globe to provide completely clean energy.  Being the largest is not ITER’s only claim to fame. The project is one of the most expensive scientific projects in the world.