China's "artificial sun" reached a temperature of 180 million degrees with a heating power of 10 megawatts, according to scientists at the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences where the experiment was conducted. This is six times warmer than the center of the sun. The device, the Tokamak Advanced Experimental Superconductor (EAST), is built to harness the power of nuclear fusion, the same process that powers the stars.
Most living things depend on nuclear fusion. If the sun stopped working, so did we. But the merger can also offer a clean energy solution for the future.
For a fusion reaction to occur, two atomic nuclei merge under extremely high pressures and temperatures, reaching 270 million degrees. Once merged, they release a large amount of energy that can be captured and potentially used to power cities. Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, there is no carbon emissions. And unlike nuclear fission, it is relatively safe.
"The EAST news is very exciting," said William Dorland, a physicist who studies nuclear fusion reactors at the University of Maryland, to Digital Trends. The result is not unprecedented – world record temperatures are up to five times higher – but Dorland, who was not involved in the research, said the result was stimulating, particularly due to the design of the device. It is built for "magnetic confinement fusion".
"The challenge for the magnetic confinement meltdown is to produce high temperatures on the fuel while maintaining high density and excellent thermal insulation," said Dorland. "Achieving these three performance goals simultaneously is very difficult."
Nuclear fusion is difficult to start and even harder to maintain. It is difficult to build a reactor capable of containing the immense pressure and temperature required by the reaction. But fusion labs and startups from around the world have begun to turn the tide, informs the BBC and see a melting-pot future on the horizon.
"This is the SpaceX moment for the merger," said Christofer Mowry, chief executive of a Canadian company called General Fusion, to the BBC. "This is where the maturation of fusion science is combined with the emergence of 21st century enabling technologies such as additive manufacturing and high temperature superconductors. Fusion is no longer "30 years away."
There are still many landmarks ahead. The creation of a reactor capable of confining the liquid and sizing the device to a commercially viable size are among the two major obstacles.