Yes, China has made valuable progress towards an “artificial sun”. No, there is no such device/object that has been launched into the atmosphere. Truth is, China has successfully run tests on its Tokamak reactor, under the project “EAST”, which stands for Experimental Advance Superconducting Tokamak. It is part of a project called the ITER, which aims to make a super large-scale fusion reactor that can provide clean and sustainable energy to the planet. This project has already been dubbed one of the most expensive and ambitious science experiments in the history of humanity, just like the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider.
What is ITER?
ITER stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. It is the world’s largest fusion reactor that is designed to produce net power 500 MW of heat, of which 10% will be used to heat the plasma, and 90% will be used to turn water into steam to produce electricity. In a world of nuclear reactors that use fission reactions to generate heat and energy, and in turn, also produce a lot of nuclear waste, it is the only experimental fusion device that is expected to produce significant amounts of net power, making it one of a kind. The fusion reactor is set to be ready for testing by 2025, and actual operation by only 2035. But right now, the ITER is far from producing economically viable power, considering the extravagant cost it has incurred in its planning, construction, and assembly.
Who made ITER?
ITER was conceived in 1985 by scientists from the USSR, the US, Europe, and Japan. It is an international program, but with a majority contribution from Europe and Japan. Till now, Seven countries are involved in this project namely India, Japan, China, European Union, Russia, South Korea, and, the United States. The ITER project began in 1985 and the work started in earnest in 1997. The Project is expected to finish in 2035.
The EAST project and ITER
The EAST project, a part of ITER, is the Chinese front for helping with the research of the main fusion reactor. Under this, China has successfully demonstrated the working and efficiency of the Tokamak (a donut-shaped device used to confine plasma using a powerful magnetic field). This Tokamak is the basis of ITER’s main fusion reactor and all the countries part of the ITER are doing their bit of research and development to move forward with the big project, and China’s EAST is a step in the right direction.
The latest records show that China’s reactor kept up operation at a record temperature of around 70 million degrees Celsius, almost 5 times hotter than the core of the sun, for almost 18 minutes. This project is hence being dubbed as an “artificial sun”. This lays the solid experimental groundwork for future fusion reactor projects.
Traditional nuclear reactors have always used the fission of highly volatile elements like Uranium or Plutonium as its source of energy generation, producing the required energy, heat and together with it, ample nuclear waste, harmful to the environment, due to the fact that it takes a very, very long time to get decayed, and cannot be easily gotten rid of, like other kinds of waste. A fusion reactor produces more energy than it uses, and it is a clean energy source. The waste or remains from the reaction is none to minimal to none, as it is based on high energy fusion reactions between identical hydrogen atoms to form helium, just like the core of the sun. Since fusion reactions are much more efficient than fission reactions, the artificial sun can produce more energy than the real sun. It could be used to generate energy without the effect of pollution. It could power a lot of things other than the regular power usage of human society, for example, it could be used in the future to power interstellar travel.
What is the process of making this “artificial sun”?
The process through which fusion power is generated is called the Tokamak Process. This magnetic confinement process uses magnetism 100 times greater than that of the strongest magnets ever made by man. It generates a huge magnetic field inside a doughnut-shaped container.
In this process, the plasma is heated to tens of millions of degrees, making it glow. The heat is generated by using plasma to heat the plasma. The hot plasma is heated by a powerful superconducting solenoid magnet, which is chilled to -269 degrees Celsius (inside the machine). Hot plasma is injected into the center of a torus (doughnut-shaped chamber) to heat up the cold plasma. The hot plasma transfers its energy to the cold plasma, which is then converted into electricity.
The process occurs in four different stages.
- Vacuum pumps are used to clear the chamber of gases
- Hydrogen is introduced into the chamber and is heated up to high and controlled temperatures
- The hydrogen is changed into plasma form. This plasma is very hot and so the coolant is pumped around the central plasma to provide thermal cooling
- Lithium is put into the plasma. Lithium provides energy to the plasma and will also make it glow
Fact Check: China and its Artificial Sun in the Sky
China’s artificial sun (EAST) doesn’t look like a real Sun. it’s a thermonuclear device that is being kept in an enclosed facility. They didn’t launch it into the sky. China launched satellite components on its Long March 7A rockets during the nearby time period, and people mistook this launch as an “artificial sun” that corresponded with the earlier news regarding the success of its nuclear reactor process. The launch video ended up getting viral with the wrong headlines, mixing up both the stories.