Controlled Nuclear Fusion in China: Making The Out Of Reach Dream Possible
Written By: Zhiying Published: 15/10/2020
Whilst environmental activists like Greta Thunberg are busy endorsing US presidential election candidates, the worldwide scientific community is trying to find solutions to save the environment from the exploitation of capitalism. As the main cause of environmental problems, the use of energy will be one of the key challenges in the coming decades. The reasons are in two folds. First, the generation of energy produces emissions such as Greenhouse gases and nuclear waste and damages the environment. One of the consequences of environmental destruction is global warming, giving rise to high temperatures, floods, storms, and subsequently economic loss, pandemics, and extinction. To address these concerns, the United Nations Climate Change Conference is held annually to unite the nations, come up with plans, and set targets to reduce the damage to the environment. Many social campaigns such as School Strikes (led by Greta Thunberg) and Extinction Rebellion were initiated. Unfortunately, the conferences and campaigns exist to promote capitalist reform, cause disputes between countries (e.g. the unfair distribution of per-capita carbon budget for China at the Copenhagen Climate Conference, 2009), and of course, have made little progress environmentally.
The second concern is that the traditional means of energy are largely limited. By estimation, the coal reserves will last for around 150 years at current rates of production; the oil reserves worldwide are capable of 47 years’ use according to the present consumption level – the clock is ticking. Green energies such as wind, solar and tidal powers alone contribute too little to support the consumption of modern days. The lack of natural resources is alerting as it often leads to clashes and wars between regions. One example is the constant clashes in the mid-East area due to the occupation of oil resources. Therefore, to sustain the orderly operation of humans’ social, political, and economic activities and overall world peace, we must resolve energy consumption as the top priority. One of the possibilities rests in the technology of controlled nuclear fusion, which is believed to change the way of energy consumption. Many might have learned the concepts of nuclear fission and fusion in the Physics class in high school; we might also have heard about the horrifying Chernobyl disaster caused by the nuclear reactor overheat. However, controlled nuclear fusion is hardly explained and known by the general public.
From Theory to Application
What is controlled nuclear fusion? According to the mass-energy equivalence formula (E=mc2) brought up by Einstein, the fusion of neutrons can release a gigantic amount of energy. Taking the Sun for an example, it is the fusion of hydrogen isotopes (1H, 2H, and 3H) with Helium (He) that constantly generates the heat and light and gives birth to lives on Earth. Controlled Nuclear Fusion, in plain words, imitates the process of the generation of energy on the Sun.
As Hydrogen is chemically stable and non-radioactive, its fusion to Deuterium and Tritium is safe and free from nuclear waste. Moreover, the material needed for this chemical reaction, Deuterium, and Lithium is highly sufficient in the ocean. In theory, 1-litre seawater can produce the same amount of energy that 300-litre gas does; the storage would sustain human activities (by the current standard) for 1 billion years. In a nutshell, controlled nuclear fusion is clean and safe, which means unlimited energy.
So, why haven’t we commercialised it already? Because the condition required for the chemical reaction is very demanding, and the key is temperature. Nuclear fusion reaction requires a high temperature of several million degrees at a minimum. This has been realised in countries including China. However, for the second question, what container should we use to hold it? At such a temperature, the state of materials is neither solid, liquid, or gas but in a plasma state, moving around at super high speed – explosive and dangerous. In reaction, Soviet Union scientists Igor Tamm and Andrew Sakharov proposed that a magnetic field can exert a force on the plasmas and confine them. Tokamak, the device that consists of an annular vacuum chamber and a coil was invented. Once these coils are energised with a large current, a magnetic field is created and controls the violent plasma.
Experiments show that the tokamak device can indeed obtain energy through nuclear fusion. Nonetheless, two more questions arise. First, the working time of a tokamak device lasts very short. If the current is not large enough, the plasma will not be controlled for a long time, and the device will be burned out. Secondly, the long-term control of these plasmas means huge electrical energy consumption. Physicists use the ratio of energy produced to the energy consumed to measure the efficiency of the tokamak device. The ratio is engineering breakeven or symbolised as Q (Q=Pfus/Pheat). The Q value must be greater than 1. However, being merely greater than 1 is still far from being able to produce the energy needed for human consumption. The internationally recognised energy balance point Q must be above 10 to compensate the energy for the running of the device. To make nuclear fusion power generation commercially competitive, that is, the cost and traditional power generation methods are the same, the Q value must be at least 30. The current British tokamak JET’s Q value is 2/3, and the goal Q set by ITER is only 10. In brief, all current tokamak devices are not profiting. Therefore, we are still far from the industrial and commercial applications of this technology.
The technical dilemma is shared worldwide. In reaction, in the year of 2005, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) was founded in France to unite the EU, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, and the US to collaborate on this dream project. China, in particular, was the first country to declare participation, followed by the EU, Japan, and Russia. Financially, China, being a developing country, has contributed 10% of the total cost (12 billion dollars) like the USA, Japan, and France. Meanwhile, China is the largest supplier of ITER, manufacturing the components for the operation of the reactor.
In fact, China was a later comer in the field of nuclear energy. In comparison with the United States and Japan – the leading countries in this technology, China only joined in the development in the 80s and managed to catch up in the recent 20 years. In 1995, Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) was established in Hefei, Anhui Province aside from the participation in ITER. In 2012 July, EAST created two world records: the longest time of high-temperature-discharge, and the longest time of high-confinement-discharge. In 2017, EAST broke another world record: achieving a high confinement operation with a continuous discharge of 50 million degrees plasma for 101.2 seconds, accomplishing the milestone of the 60-to-100-second stage. Its steady-state operation mode has provided important data for ITER and other reactors. In January 2020, EAST has reached up to 200 million degrees, marking a step closer to success. In the same year, the new device HL-2M was finished and started operating at the Southwest Institute of Physics in China. HL-2M particularly focuses on the mitigation effects of various advanced diverter configurations on the target plate thermal load and provides an experimental basis for ITER and other reactors. See what goes in, and energy comes out.
The yearning for the realisation of nuclear fusion has impacted on Chinese youths intellectually and culturally. Today, “ke kong he ju bian” (the pinyin of “controlled nuclear fusion” in Mandarin Chinese), has become a buzzword in Chinese Netizens. It became first widely known in 2018, at “A Spoonful of Ideas” Roundtable talk, in which the speaker raised the point that even though there seem to be solutions to the environmental concerns, for instance, the electronic automobiles to decrease the harmful gas emission, the charging of the vehicles still relies on burning the fossil fuels. Therefore, they do not essentially solve the problem but controlled nuclear fusion will, as it avoids all types of carbon-based consumptions and thereby the greenhouse consequences. Nowadays, if you search for the keywords, you can see multiple million articles, videos, and discussions in Chinese around this subject. In a number of Chinese sci-fi’s, the application can be readily seen in the imaginary future. The Wandering Earth, written by the Hugo Award-winning author Liu Cixin, depicts that the planet Earth has to travel to a different habitable galaxy like a spaceship. Human beings have to live underground as the Earth is leaving the solar system because it is becoming deadly frozen on the surface. To keep the planet, as well as life, moving forward, the major source of energy is controlled nuclear fusion. Through the influences of the internet, academia, literature, and movies, this technology is attracting increasing interests and perhaps also contributions among the younger generations.