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Hope for unlimited power from nuclear fusion

The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in Hefei

Temperatures hotter than the inside of the sun. Hardly imaginable for ordinary people. For fusion scientists, they are part of everyday life. Recently, Chinese scientists successfully raised the plasma in their fusion reactor to 70 million degrees Celsius – and maintained this state for more than 17 minutes. Last May, they even reached a temperature of 120 million degrees, which could be maintained for 101 seconds. That sounds short, but it marks a breakthrough. Because it shows the viability of the new technology.

Like other countries, China wants to finally make the great dream of fusion power come true. This new form of power generation has been researched for more than 60 years. It promises power in abundance, without fossil fuels, without climate damage, without lasting nuclear waste. These are tempting prospects for a country like China, with its high dependence on coal-fired power and growing demand for power. The People’s Republic is therefore operating several experimental fusion reactors.

But so far, no scientific team has successfully extracted more power from a fusion reactor than was previously supplied to set the fusion processes in motion. However, the recent successes of Chinese scientists could soon change that.

Nuclear fusion: China with ‘impressive’ results

European researchers see China on a promising path in fusion research. Sustaining fusion plasma for 1,000 seconds is an “impressive technological achievement,” Dr. Hartmut Zohm, Head of Tokamak Scenario Development at the German Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, told China.Table.

Volker Naulin, Head of Fusion Science Department in EUROfusion, also says, “Keeping a plasma stable for a longer period of time and at high temperatures is impressive.” EUROfusion is an association of European research bodies to consolidate European cooperation in fusion research.

But as remarkable as the results of the Chinese experiments sound, they should not be overestimated. After all, three conditions must be met to make plasma usable inside fusion reactors to generate power. The three parameters of temperature, plasma density, and confinement time must reach a certain level for the fusion fire to burn self-sustaining. The necessary temperature has already been reached by the Chinese. “For plasma density and confinement time, the Chinese colleagues are still far from the necessary values,” says Dr. Zohm of the Max Planck Institute. European researchers are already much further ahead with the three conditions, he adds.

Europe is leading the way in fusion power

Overall, Europe is still the leader in fusion research, according to the unanimous opinion of European scientists. Chinese colleagues are still “not quite at the level of the best institutes worldwide,” says Hartmut Zohm. The high temperatures and plasma stability that China’s scientists have recently achieved have also already been achieved in European experiments, says Tony Donné, Program Manager (CEO) at EUROfusion.

Europe also has an edge in the best “fuel” for fusion reactors. According to scientists, a mixture of deuterium and tritium holds great promise for powering future power-generating fusion reactors. It provides “the most energy at the easiest conditions,” says a spokesman for EUROfusion. So far, the so-called JET experiment in the United Kingdom is the only fusion experiment so far that uses a deuterium-tritium mixture, Donné said.

The JET experiment, in which more than 30 European research institutes are involved, has also achieved the highest power efficiency in the world. “The fusion energy gain achieved in these devices have not been matched anywhere else to date,” says Eurofusion’s Programme Manager. But even JET researchers have not yet reached the point where more power is gained than invested. This is the goal of ITER, an international test reactor in France, in which China, Russia, and the USA are also involved.

Beijing gives high priority to nuclear fusion

According to Volker Naulin, this also makes Europe “clearly the leader in fusion research“. But “China is catching up fast.” The People’s Republic is investing vast sums in research of the new technology. Unlike the rest of the world, China gives fusion energy “a very high priority for future power supply,” says Zohm of the Max Planck Institute. In Hefei, for example, a dedicated research campus has been established. There, technologies are being developed to “operate fusion machines economically and permanently,” Naulin says.

China is also planning to construct a demonstration reactor to show the technological viability of generating power from nuclear fusion. On the international level, this is planned only after the large-scale experiment ITER, says Zohm. However, the final decision on funding the Chinese demonstration reactor was only recently postponed, Naulin noted.

China would like to generate power from nuclear fusion as early as 2040, says Chinese plasma scientist Song Yuntao. Achieving this ambitious goal is “not ruled out“, says Zohm. After all, China is “investing a lot of money in this technology and is making rapid progress.” Exact predictions, however, are difficult. Especially in the field of nuclear fusion. In the past, scientists were convinced several times that they were on the verge of a major breakthrough. Tony Donné of EUROfusion considers the Chinese 2040 target as a little optimistic“.

Europe lacks political support for nuclear fusion

However, China is investing so massively in fusion research overall that the People’s Republic could soon overtake European researchers. “In three to four years, the research crown could lie elsewhere, namely in China,” says Naulin. In Europe, he says, the necessary political support is lacking. The EUROfusion scientist complains, “If you slack off now and don’t build a demonstration reactor, Europe will lose the necessary know-how.” That’s because while China is investing, funding is being cut in Europe. The budget for EUROfusion has been cut in recent years, Donné says.

In addition, fusion research is regarded as nuclear technology at the political level. As a result, it cannot receive funding from the EU Green Deal. Bureaucratic hurdles also impede research in Europe. Naulin points out that the ITER large-scale experiment was built “in accordance with safety standards that are required for a nuclear power plant.” However, Naulin does not consider this necessary. “It makes it more complicated and costly than it needs to be.” Generating power through fusion is comparatively safe: there is no chance of a meltdown as in a conventional nuclear power plant.

China and Europe cooperate on fusion research

But China’s rise in fusion research is not only based on massive funding. There is an intense exchange in research. China’s excellent capabilities in nuclear fusion are also owed to “open scientific cooperation,” Naulin says.

“Europe and China still have a very active cooperation program,” confirms Tony Donné. For example, many of the fusion experiments have international advisory committees that include participants from China and Western countries. At the meetings, Chinese scientists also present their data openly, Donné says. “Our Chinese colleagues publish all their results and invite us to collaborate in their experiments,” Zohm of the Max Planck Institute also confirms.

But China currently seems to benefit more from the partnership. Naulin and Zohm explain that more knowledge is currently flowing to China than the other way around. This is not a cause for concern, however, and is due to Europe’s lead in the state of research. From the political level, however, less money is already provided for the exchange. “Those responsible have the feeling that the exchange is one-sided in favor of China,” says Volker Naulin.

Europe’s researchers are getting less generous with their knowledge

However, a certain degree of competition and caution is definitely present in the Western-Chinese cooperation. “I would describe the relationship as friendly competition,” says Zohm. And Donné of EUROfusion adds that “when it comes to fusion technology in which we are working on technologies and components that might be strategic, we are more careful.” Meanwhile, when intellectual property issues are involved, EUROfusion has become more cautious about sharing details. Donné assumes that “on the Chinese side, they do the same” when it comes to intellectual property.

It is not yet clear whether China or Europe will be the first to successfully build the first commercially viable fusion power plant that will also generate power. The Europeans plan to present new results of a JET experiment on February 9. And the scientific community is eagerly awaiting the large-scale ITER experiment, which also has Chinese participation. After years of construction, the first ITER experiments are scheduled to launch in 2025.

However, almost all experts agree: In the short term, fusion energy will not be able to contribute to climate protection. But by the middle of the century, it could cover a part of the global power demand – if research goes according to plan.

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