Chinese scientists on Thursday successfully conducted their first test of an experimental thermonuclear fusion reactor, which replicates the energy generating process of the sun.
The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion reactor, nicknamed “artificial sun”, was tested at the Institute of Plasma Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Hefei, capital city of east China’s Anhui Province.
During the experiment, deuterium and tritium atoms were forced together at a temperature of 100 million Celsius.
“At that temperature, the super heated plasma, which is neither a gas, a liquid nor a solid, should begin to give off its own energy,” scientists explained.
The first tests lasted nearly three seconds, and generated an electrical current of 200 kiloamperes, Wan Yuanxi, general manager of EAST, told Xinhua.
The experiments were continuing, he said.
The device is planned to eventually create a plasma lasting 1,000 consecutive seconds, the longest a fusion reactor has ever run.
Wan said the deuterium extracted from one liter of seawater could produce energy equivalent to that generated by burning 300 liters of gasoline thanks to the fusion technology.
If the thermonuclear fusion technology is commercialized, it may provide energy to mankind for more than 100 million years, Wan said.
Li Jiangang, director of the Institute of Plasma Physics, said the results of the test met the expectations of scientists and signified a great breakthrough in the research of thermonuclear fusion.
“That means we lead all our competitors by at least a decade,” said Li. “The breakthrough will make it possible for mankind to harness a safe, clean and endless source of energy.”
The EAST is an upgrade of China’s first-generation Tokamak device and the first of its kind in operation in the world, said Chinese scientists.
The Institute of Plasma Physics spent eight years and 200 million yuan (25 million U.S. dollars) on building the experimental reactor.
The columniform device, made with special stainless steel, is about 12 meters high and weighs 400 tons.
Compared with similar devices in other countries, EAST cost the least money and time to be built and is the first in operation, said Li.
The EAST would be the most advanced thermonuclear fusion reactor in the world for the next ten years, said Dr. Gary Jackson from General Atomics of the United States, who participated in the research.
Unlike traditional nuclear fission reactors, which split atoms to create energy and produce dangerous radioactive waste, the EAST uses nuclear fusion to compress atoms at extremely high temperatures to generate energy that would produce very little pollution.
Scientists theorize that a fully functional fusion reactor would provide cheaper, safer, cleaner and endless energy and reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
The EAST is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is the largest international program dedicated to experiments in thermonuclear fusion.
In 2003, China joined the 4.6-billion-euro ITER which was originally initiated by the United States and Russia. The first operation of ITER might be in 2016.
Among the six partners involved in this ambitious plan, the European Union will cover 50 percent of the total budget. The remaining five, the United States, Japan, Russia, the Republic of Korea and China, will pay 10 percent each.
“The EAST is the only prototype nearest to the ITER and, thus, it can serve ITER advanced research in terms of engineering technology and physics,” said Wan.
But the most optimistic estimation on first commercialization of the ITER said it needs at least half a century.
Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Xu Guanhua said earlier that as China is short of energy, global research endeavors for energy supply solutions meet the strategic interest of the country.