China announced last week a major breakthrough in the realm of nuclear fusion research. The Chinese Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), was able to heat hydrogen gas to a temperature of near 50 million degrees Celsius for an unprecedented 102 seconds. While this is nowhere near the hottest temperature that has ever been achieved in nuclear fusion research, that distinction belongs to the Large Hadron Collider which reached 4 trillion degrees Celsius, it is the longest amount of time one has been maintained.
Germany was the previous world leader in nuclear fusion research when it was abe to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius for a quarter of a second. This was considered a huge breakthrough in the amount of time we could maintain these levels of temperatures. With China’s new record of 102 seconds, this represents a massive step forward in nuclear fusion, with the goal being a length of time long enough for us to effectively harness the energy produced from the reaction.
The goal of nuclear fusion research is to produce clean, renewable energy. It seeks to do this by replicating the same conditions that power the sun. Super heated hydrogen atoms, contained by the suns massive gravitational pull, bounce around inside the sun until they collide into one another. As the two hydrogen atoms attach to one another they form a helium atom. The helium atom has more mass than either of the individual atoms, but less mass than the two combined. This excess mass is released as huge amounts of energy.
Unfortunately this process is very difficult to replicate on Earth as we cannot use the sun’s incredible gravitational force to contain the superheated hydrogen atoms long enough for them to begin to crashing into one another. Nuclear fusion researchers are experimenting with different methods of keeping the atoms contained in a vacuum to maintain the necessary temperature. China’s EAST reactor does this by the use of a magnetic field in a donut-shape that has the hydrogen circling around inside it.
If the results reported from the EAST turn out to be true, and it is important to note that they have not yet been peer reviewed, then the technologies they have in place there could very well lead to harnessable energy from nuclear fusion.
With the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) currently being constructed in France, perhaps the insights gained at the EAST could give us the hints necessary for the ITER to finally “crack the code” on nuclear fusion. Even if that turns out to be the case, we are still likely decades from seeing nuclear fusion powering the world. However, with this development from China, we are one step further down the road to clean, renewable energy.