China's 'artificial sun' sets new world record by running for 403 seconds

Its demonstration nuclear power plant is expected to be ready by 2035.
Ameya Paleja
The EAST nuclear reactor in China
The EAST nuclear reactor in China.

Institute of Plasma Physics 

The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), popularly known as China's "artificial sun", set a new record on Wednesday by running for 403 seconds in a steady-state high-confinement long plasma operation, Chinese news outlet CGTN reported.

The recent run of the reactor broke the previous record run of 101 seconds which was achieved in May 2021. The experiment which was completed after the researchers made 120,000 attempts will be a critical data point for the operation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), of which China is also a member.

Moving closer to nuclear fusion energy

Nuclear fusion, which is the source of the energy released from the Sun is considered the ultimate energy source even on Earth since the process does not create any carbon emissions or radioactive material as a by-product.

China's 'artificial sun' sets new world record by running for 403 seconds
Artist's representation of the inside of a tokamak

When atoms of hydrogen are superheated to temperatures above 100 million degrees Celsius, the resulting plasma creates conditions that allow the atoms to merge and form helium, releasing vast amounts of energy during this process.

Scientists have found that arranging strong magnets in a ring-shaped special design device called tokamak can prevent the plasma from coming in contact with the reactor walls. China had ambitious plans in this approach and planned that its tokamak would operational by 2020.

Although that has remained a pipe dream, Chinese researchers have nevertheless made some commendable progress in this direction. Last January, under a different experiment, EAST set a record for running for 1,056 seconds, at high plasma temperature.

Although this time around, the run duration of the reactor was shorter, the significance of the breakthrough lies in the fact that the reactor was run in high confinement mode. In this mode, the temperature and density of the particles are greatly increased, which is an important step toward achieving higher operational efficiency of fusion power plants in the future.

Since its inception in 2006, the EAST reactor has been an experimental testbed for nuclear fusion researchers in China to conduct their research operations. Earlier in January, a different plasma operation scenario, dubbed Super I-Mode was discovered and demonstrated, CGTN said in its report.

Work on the engineering design of the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR) has been completed. The CFETR is considered the next-generation "artificial sun" fusion reactor and aims to be the world's first fusion energy demonstrator. Construction of the reactor is expected to be completed by 2035.

Tokamak reactor experiments in other parts of the world also expect their demonstration plants to be ready by the early 2030s.

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