China’s Fusion Reactor Hits Milestone

An experimental fusion reactor built by the Chinese Academy of Science has hit a major milestone. The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has maintained a plasma pulse for a record 102 seconds at a temperature of 50 million degrees – three times hotter than the core of the sun.

The EAST is a tokamak, or a torus that uses superconducting magnets to compress plasma into a thin ribbon where atoms will fuse and energy will be created. For the last fifty years, most research has been dedicated to the study of tokamaks in producing fusion power, but recently several projects have challenged this idea. The Wendelstein 7-X  stellarator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics recently saw first plasma and if results go as expected, the stellarator will be the design used in fusion power plants. Tokamaks have shortcomings; they can only be ‘pulsed’, not used continuously, and we haven’t been building tokamaks large enough to produce a net gain in power, anyway.

Other tokamaks currently in development include ITER in France. Theoretically, ITER is large enough to attain a net gain in power at 12.4 meters in diameter. EAST is much smaller, with a diameter of just 3.7 meters. It is impossible for EAST to ever produce a net gain in power, but innovations in the design that include superconducting toroidal and poloidal magnets will surely provide insight into unsolved questions in fusion reactor design.

105 thoughts on “China’s Fusion Reactor Hits Milestone

    1. It’s just a very, very long corner.

      Seriously, though, there’s been a lot of progress in the last decade. And you gotta cut them some slack — the scale of the problem and the potential payout are enormous. End the world’s energy shortage? It’s no wonder that it’s not being done overnight.

      But fusion reactors and flying cars. We’re all still waiting.

      1. The issues with fusion reactors are not trivial, and I am more aware of that then most. However I have seen too many breathless announcements making claims that never materialized for this technology for over forty years now to the point were I am becoming a bit cynical. Furthermore I also know that fusion supporters have written many checks with their mouths that these reactors (should they ever get built) cannot cash.

        And please! There is no energy shortage on this planet – there are issues that need to be addressed over wastes produced as we use it – but there is no shortage per se.

        1. You are correct. Energy is neither destroyed nor created. The energy merely transfers form. The problem isn’t the lack of energy, it is the access to concentrated high potential energy. We are a species that craves convenience.

          1. Well even there small fission reactors can provide concentrated energy in a far smaller package than fusion likely ever would. And please don’t bring up waste as an issue against fission, neutron activation is going to make any fusion reactor a real disposal problem at the end of its useful life too.

          2. “neutron activation is going to make any fusion reactor a real disposal problem at the end of its useful life too.”

            There won’t be many long lived isotopes produced due to neutron activation, and the choice of materials helps with that. It’s mostly stuff that has half-lives from hours to a couple years. Even steel from fission reactors is considered low level waste after a cooldown period, and can even be recycled.

          3. Yes choice of materials. The thing is is that there looks like there is going to be far less latitude in that regard for a production fusion reactor than what is now enjoyed by the designers of the hot parts of a fission reactor. As well the neutron fluxes in a fusion machine are also very likely to be higher by a significant amount. Consider that one of the methods being considered to extract energy from a fusion machine involves irradiating a blanket of some fertile isotope to breed fissile isotopes for later burning in a conventional reactor.

          4. And the neutron energies can be higher as well (at least for dueteron-triton fusion). And with no thermalization from a moderator, the neurons are capable of activating a much broader range of atoms.

      2. “and the potential payout are enormous. End the world’s energy shortage?” (quote)

        Is the payout enormous? A multi-tens of billions of dollars project called ITER would disagree. An engineering project and monetary payout on a scale not before seen on earth, and they aren’t even designing it to produce power (that’s next generation). They aren’t even sure if the lithium blanket / tritium breeder reclamation and recycling setup will work well enough to be self sustaining. As far as ending a perceived world energy shortage- total bullshit. The physics and logistics of power distribution alone prevent that from happening.

        “a lot of progress in the last decade”? (quote)

        I read an article in a 1972 Scientific American (July issue) and thought to myself “this will be available to power my home in ten years”

        The only progress that has been made in the last decade is getting closer to break-even. And again the devices were not designed to extract power, so it is all just a big money pit lab project at this point. Only <70% of break-even has been achieved (by JET) for fractions of a second.

        Don't get me wrong, I love the idea, I love the engineering involved, and it is neat (just to see what happens) sometimes. Don't get me started on laser fusion. Even more of a money pit.

        But how much power can you generate with a few billion dollars in solar panels?

        1. “A multi-tens of billions of dollars project called ITER would disagree. ”

          ITER is projected to cost €15 billion over 35 years. Not exactly “multi”. It actually costs less than all the renewable energy subsidies per year in Germany.

          The Wendelstein 7-X costs about €1 billion.

          1. That cost projection is the over-budget version. It was initially supposed to cost €5 billion.

            The Wendelstein 7-X has so far cost €1 billion and now it’s done and moved on to the experimenting phase.

          2. 1 – 10 -100 billion, it makes no difference. Neither this China setup nor the Wendelstein 7-X have achieved break-even. And neither of them are designed for power production.
            And one won’t help, no matter how much power it produces.

          3. No, it’s not designed for power production yet. We still haven’t mastered fusion. We build these experimental reactors, we study fusion, we master it. Then we build the commercial version. That’s how all science works. It’s not rocket science.

            Fusion power is taking a while, but if we get there, it’ll all be completely worth the effort.

    1. If you figure it yourself then there’s no need to keep referring to and replicating others. Do it and have it hung on HaD top page, and also in Science.

      The endless crying for ‘duinos, Pi or 3D printer articles will include “nuclear fusion reactor” thereafter. No more fusions copycats! we had enough “easy backyard blanket” articles…

    1. My nuclear battery is running out too! time to switch to a more modern energy source, but I think I have to buy some better springs and dampers for my car, it could get a little heavier….

        1. No, but they are a powerful antioxidant which can significantly reduce any oxidative stress that may lead to DNA damage and cancer initiation. Somehow I think just eating your veggies is a cheaper and tastier choice.

    1. If the Chinese research funded by the Chinese government reaches a break through, I would expect them to have the same interest in sharing said tech as the US did after the Manhattan project, even with their supposed allies.
      So I agree with you. It will be state controlled and not shared outside of China. It’s a very large strategic advantage being the only super power with net positive fusion.

  1. Is there any “spin-off” technology coming out of these thousands of billions of dollars dedicated over the last few decades into fusion reactor research? I think of something the normal human beeing can profit from in his every day life.
    Sometimes i wish we could turn back the wheel of time and see what would have happened if all that money was dumped into better battery technology, or better solar energy harvesting…

      1. There is. The Tesla/Panasonic gigafactory costs about $5 billion, which is roughly 4x the price of the Wendelstein 7-X test reactor.

        And that isn’t nearly enough. One Tesla gigafactory can supply batteries to roughly 3-4 million electric vehicles, assuming they go through one battery pack per decade per car. There are 250 million passenger cars in the US, so there would be a need for about 65 gigafactories in the US alone, at a cost of $325 billion, plus of course the batteries themselves which is a trillion-dollar business. Furthermore, each of those factories consumes 1/6th the current world supply of lithium, so the world supply of lithium must increase by a factor of 11x and over 90% of it would go simply into supplying batteries to electric cars, for the US alone, which is just 4% of world population.

        Suddenly it doesn’t seem too much to spend a couple billion into fusion research, if it has just a hope of avoiding the sort of ridiculous expenses as nearly any of the alternatives.

          1. I’m reminded of playing MegaLoMania on the Amiga.
            If you mine your rarer elements, concentrate the factory on producing the weapons you’ve already got the blueprints for you might very quickly use up said elements when 10 pieces of said element are needed to produce one canon.
            Then your design bureau discovers the jet plane or the nuclear missile and only need 1/2 of that element to build them and you’re shit out of luck because you used it all up on canons.
            Likely you can play the level again.
            We don’t get that choice.

            Using up the world supply of lithium or other rare earths in preposterously large factories is not about solving the world’s problems it’s about creating divides for shareholders.
            Wait till be run out of it or XYZ and find suddenly we need some for the next technology leap.

          2. I dunno if we’ll “use up” the world’s supply of lithium, we can always recycle the batteries. It’s not a massively rare element.

            Besides that, once the electric car market gets big, it’ll be worthwhile for people to research into new batteries. If lithium becomes rare, and therefore expensive, there’ll be a lot of money in working on ways to replace it with something else. Sure, there’s only so many possible ways of making batteries, but some ingenious method of energy storage will come up.

            As far as running out, I bet we’ll run out of petroleum first.

  2. Perhaps, has anyone found a single published paper on this? i.e. a source other than the media or known Chinese propaganda channels. The best I can find is a single graphic that shows temperature vs time for the pulse. I can’t find any information on the state of the machine after the pulse or any evidence that they were able to repeat it, which I find most suspicious.

    N.B. I am not discussing the viability of fusion energy generation, I am discussing the credibility of the claims based on the available evidence, which is close to zero.

  3. We can hope this turn’s into an arms race of energy independence between countries. BTW, Russian has claimed to have published specifics on how to detect gravitational waves. Thank you good humans for letting us on the Soyuz to go to the ISS despite our retarded leaders.

    Maybe if we solve which nation has ‘le bestest’ energy creation we can throw a couple of nickles toward ensuring we can spot and a prevent a “planet killer” from turning us into Dinosaurs.

        1. Based on the wiki entry Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor#Disadvantages the worse is… the business model and regulation.

          Not to mention producing hard rads is bad and the entire enrichment thing.

          Helium good, Uranium bad.

          1. The fact is that one of the only reasons fusion is considered safe and clean is that few actually have any idea of how a power producing reactor of this type will actually work if one is ever made. The fact is that once you start scratching down the real advantages might be marginal at best and in some cases perhaps worse than current fission designs.

      1. Yeah. Ironically it was showcased on RT vs CNN, Fox, msnbc, etc.

        Also it is really amazing and awesome to watch the NASA channel, see how well these space agencies and their cosmo/astro-naut crews work really well together.

        It’s bothersome to see that people confuse Competition & Rival with Cooperation & Enemy… But whatever.

      1. There was about 10 years between the first reactors and civilian access to nuclear power for the generation of electricity. This is a similar timetable for Lockheed’s fusion program, ten years until military utilisation and ten more for civilian.

        The fact that compact nuclear fusion has a huge strategic value would play some part in this timetable, as it has for a large number of significant technologies.

        BTW the people behind the “China fusion milestone, and Lockheed F35 sucks” propaganda are often the same news channels. So don’t ever forget the context of the big picture strategic games that are constantly going on. China is seriously worried about the strategic advantages that Lockheed’s various programs will give the USA and are trying to undermine the company in any way they can. Interestingly when I put this to a Lockheed person once they did not seem to care, it was as if they were so confident in what they knew about the company’s actual progress that they did not feel the need to defend themselves. Normally companies get really defensive if there is a concerted campaign to trash their reputation. i.e. They may be arrogant, but there is a difference between arrogance and delusions of grandeur, arrogant people have good reason for being arrogant, even if some people find their conduct obnoxious. If Lockheed fail to deliver on a major project it would be a first, it is possible but judging by their actual track record it is not probable that they will fail.

        1. A timetable of ten years to a practical compact fusion power plant military or civilian is simply not possible. Like most gee-wizz energy notions, it only seems possible to those that do not have a good grounding in the basic physics.

          1. I did not say I was an expert, however I have enough understanding of the physics involved and four decades of sifting through technical claims for new ideas as part of my job not to see how thin this is. Success is far from given, and certainly not within a ten year timeline.

          2. You wrote: “The only difference between you and I is that I don’t pretend to be an expert on fusion physics” I replied that I made no claim to being an expert.

            I have also done business with Lockheed off and on for decades and have many acquaintances that worked there as well and while I have nothing against this company like most of its ilk, it is not the same organisation it was in the past, for any number of reasons not germane to this discussion. Both the people and the culture that made it what it once was are no longer and past successes are not guarantees for the future. That they have embarked on this project is laudable; that it’s a slam dunk is risible.

            The idea that the Chinese would go out of their way to undermine Lockheed, or indeed could by an announcement like this is ludicrous on its face.

          3. FFS what does “original comment mean?” You say Lockheed is not the same as it was in the past, LOL, as if you ever knew enough of it to know what it ever was? All companies are dynamic decade to decade but some are solid performers over many decades. So no amount of bullshit from you changes the fact that they have a solid track record and there is nothing concrete to suggest that it isn’t the strongest indicator of future performance.

            As for the Chinese propaganda machine, you are naive, they are very active internally and externally, they always have been. What rock have you been living under? Why do you think they need censorship to be so strong, because without it propaganda is less efficient. It is all part of the same totalitarian modus operandi.

          4. Yes well when you grow up you will find that things are not as conveniently black and white as you imagine now. Until then I will leave you to spit out your last little bit of bile and ignore you from now on.

          5. You are pathetic, you do not address the reasonable points I made and prefer to stoop to insults? It is very clear who needs to grow up, you do. It is not my fault that you chose to indulge in an argument at is so completely flawed and at odds with reality.

          6. The issue is that Lockheed hasn’t proposed or published any plausible means to shield the superconducting magnets from the neutron flux once they actually start the reactor, which means they have a very nifty plasma containment unit but not a fusion reactor.

            The moment those neutrons hit the magnets, the superconductor is no more and the reactor shuts down.

  4. Shielding is an issue with this design in many areas, the mirrors being only one of them. As well the problems with finding materials that will preform for useful lenghts of time in high neutron fluxes will need to be solved and that also is non-trivial. That these issues, which have plagued fusion reactor designs since the beginning, can be solved for a production unit that could ‘fit on the back of a truck’ in the timeframe they initially projected simply beggars credablity.

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