An HL-2M Tokamak reactor, more commonly known as an “artificial sun”, is about to go live at a lab in Hefei in eastern China’s Anhui province. The cutting-edge magnetic confinement device experimenting in controlled thermonuclear fusion will soon achieve an ion temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius, according to China National Nuclear Corp.

The device is designed to trigger a process of nuclear fusion, replicating the source of the sun’s energy. The sun is a natural fusion reactor where stellar nucleosynthesis transforms lighter elements into heavier ones with the release of enormous amounts of energy. Harnessing nuclear fusion in a controlled way is also seen as a potential source of almost infinite clean energy to address diminishing resources of highly-pollutive fossil fuels and their related environmental issues.

Tokamak is the most well-developed and well-funded approach to fusion energy. This method races hot plasma around in a magnetically confined torus, with an internal current.

Achieving an ion temperature above 100 million degrees is a key hurdle, and to put that figure into perspective, the core of the sun is widely believed to be 15 million degrees, meaning that the ion temperature at the manmade sun’s core has to be seven times higher. Other challenges include containing the fusion process within a safe, confined space for a sustainable period of time.

China’s artificial sun in Hefei, or Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), still a magnetic fusion energy reactor prototype, is the first tokamak to employ superconducting toroidal and poloidal magnets and aims to achieve plasma pulses of up to 1,000 seconds, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Plasma Physics.

The reactor is dubbed the “artificial sun”. Photo: Xinhua
Scientists work inside the experimental reactor. Photo: Xinhua

China is a member of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor consortium and EAST is a testbed for ITER technologies.

Scientists believe that deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen, can be extracted from the sea and an enormous amount of energy can be obtained from a deuterium-tritium fusion reaction at a temperature of 100 million degrees. After nuclear fusion, the deuterium extracted from one liter of sea water will produce energy equivalent to 300 liters of gasoline.

If a device is developed that can withstand temperatures as high as 100 million degrees and control a deuterium-tritium reaction, it will be as though an “artificial sun” had been created able to supply infinite, clean energy for mankind.