Discovery

China’s ‘Artificial Sun’ is 6 times hotter than the Natural Sun

China successfully completed the first test of its nuclear fision reactor, known as “Artificial sun” because it mimics the energy-generation process of the Sun.

Story Highlights
  • China’s artificial sun is a nuclear fusion reactor called HL-2M Tokamak reactor. It is called an "artificial Sun" because of the enormous heat and power it produces.
  • The reactor generates power by applying powerful magnetic fields to a contained loop of hot plasma, which can reach temperatures of more than 150 million degrees Celcius, which is almost 6 times hotter than the core of the sun.

Nuclear fision is a promising technology that can produce enormous amounts of clean energy with very few waste products.

he Sun in our galaxy produces energy through a nuclear fusion reaction. Inside the Sun, the hydrogen atoms collide with each other and fuse at extremely high temperatures – around 15 million degrees centigrade – under enormous gravitational pressure. Every second, 600 million tons of hydrogen are fused to create helium. During this process, part of the mass of the hydrogen atoms becomes energy.

The Sun generates energy via nuclear fusion
The Sun generates energy via nuclear fusion

Nuclear fusion vs nuclear fission

Fusion is a nuclear technology that can produce very high levels of energy without generating large quantities of nuclear waste, and scientists have been trying to perfect it for decades. Currently nuclear power is obtained in the form of fission, a process contrary to fusion (energy is produced by dividing the nucleus of a heavy atom into two or more nuclei of lighter atoms). Fission is easier to achieve, but it generates waste.

Fusion is a nuclear technology that can produce very high levels of energy without generating large quantities of nuclear waste.

HL-2M, the “Artificial Sun”

Recently, China successfully tested its “artificial sun”, a nuclear fusion reactor that could generate energy for many years to come if it can be made more sustainable. Fusion is a very expensive process, but China’s tests could help researchers in their search for ways to reduce costs.

China’s activated Artificial Sun

Fusion is a very expensive process, but China’s tests could help researchers in their search for ways to reduce costs

China’s “artificial sun” is called HL-2M, a tokamak fusion reactor located at the Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) in Chengdu, China. The reactor generates power by applying powerful magnetic fields to hydrogen to compress it until it creates a plasma that can reach temperatures of more than 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the nucleus of the Sun, and generate enormous amounts of energy when the atoms fuse together. The plasma is contained with magnets and supercooling technology.

HL-2M can reach temperatures over 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times higher than the nucleus of the Sun

HL-2M
The HL-2M tokamak reactor built by SWIP (Photo: CNNC)

First plasma

The experimental fusion reactor, HL-2M, achieved its first plasma on December 4th 2020. This is an important scientific achievement in the global effort to develop safer, cleaner forms of nuclear energy. It is also expected to greatly strenghten the research and development of key technologies in plasma physics in China.

The HL-2M project was approved by the Chinese nuclear power authority, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). SWIP, which is part of CNNC, designed and built it.

HL-2M in ITER

China is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Project. HL-2M will offer key technical support to this project – which is building its own tokamak reactor – in research areas such as flux instability and ultra-high temperature plasma magnetic phenomena.

 

China is part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Project

ITER’s goal is to determine the technological and economic viability of nuclear fusion by magnetic confinement as a large-scale energy source without de COemissions, although it still does not produce electricity. It will be the first fusion site capable of producing net energy and maintain the fusion process over long periods of time, as well as test the necessary materials and technology. This is a previous stage to the construction of a commercial demonstration site, which is expected to begin operation by 2025.

Graphic depiction of the interior of the ITER Project
Graphic depiction of the interior of the ITER Project

ITER is being built in Cadarache (South of France). It is a collaboration of 35 countries integrated into the main seven members: China, European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States. Spain participates through the European Union.

Background

China’s nuclear-powered artificial sun is located in southwestern Sichuan province. It was completed late in 2019. Chinese scientists have been working to develop smaller versions of the nuclear fusion reactor since 2006.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor scientists are also working on their own nuclear fusion research project based in France. The project, which will be the world’s largest, is expected to be completed by 2025.

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