Under the Chinese Artificial Sun: an ambitious project for Sustainable Energy Production

Updated: May 30

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In the past few months, China set a record. And no, I am not talking about anything related to the Olympics. Last December 30th, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) – or as the press likes to call it, the “artificial sun” - reached a temperature way hotter than that of the “real” sun. The news comes right from the official website of the Institute of Plasma Physics, Chinese Academy of Science, which published a release with the headline “1,056 Seconds, another world record for EAST”, and adds that this milestone lays “a solid scientific and experimental foundation toward the pursuing of the fusion energy” (Institute of Plasma Physics, 2021).

In the following few paragraphs, I am going to address what the EAST is, when it was projected and launched, and why projects like this one can pave the way to an interesting approach to the production of sustainable energy.

As stated in the South China Morning Post, from the 1960s to the 1990s, “a large number of fusion research facilities were built around the globe. But in recent decades few new facilities have been added, because of a lack of progress and a waning of that hope” (Chen, 2020). One of the facilities built in the last 20 years is precisely the EAST, which was first launched in 2006, in a lab in Hefei, in the inner land of the Anhui Province and it is “a donut-shaped reactor chamber where heated-up plasma is trapped with a powerful magnetic field” (Toper, 2022). To put it simply, it is a reactor built with the aim of replicating the nuclear fusion that naturally happens in the stars, in order to provide a stable stream of clean energy. This ambitious project is one of the first steps that could actually “help unlock the mystery to creating sustainable, reliable fusion power” (Tran, 2021). While fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – are not unlimited and mostly pose a threat to the environment, “raw materials required for the "artificial sun" are almost unlimited on earth. Therefore, fusion energy is considered the ideal "ultimate energy" for the future of humanity” (Xinhua, 2022).

According to Xinhua, the initial project required an investment of 300 million yuan – 37 million US dollars – corresponding to “one fifteenth to one twentieth the cost of similar devices being developed in the other parts of the world” (People’s Daily Online, 2006). In 2011, a heating system project was added to the EAST: at that moment, the experiment entered its second phase. In 2016 – ten years from its launch – the research reached a record, marking the “first minute-scale steady-state H-mode operation obtained on past and existing tokamaks around the world” (Institute of Plasma Physics, 2016): it was able to sustain H-Mode plasma for more than 60 seconds at 50 million °C. In May 2021, EAST reached the temperature of 120 million °C electron temperature for a period of 101 seconds: an unprecedented new milestone. And finally, this record was broken again last December, when the “research facility in Anhui ran at 70 million degrees Celsius for more than 17 minutes” (Xie, 2022).

The EAST fits into the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) facility, a project launched in 2007 by the joint commitment of China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, and now including the participation of several other countries. China’s decision to join the ITER project “was reported at the time as an opportunity for the country’s scientists to expand their expertise and give China a voice in the international science community” (Huang, 2021). ITER “will become the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor” when it becomes operational (The Indian Express, 2021). However, the path ahead is still long: the project, “in southern France, has suffered severe delays and is without a clear date for completion” (Chen, 2020). Most likely, it will not start the experiments before 2031 (Lanzavecchia, 2022). For this reason, Chinese scientists “have previously been quoted as saying that they hoped China’s own experiments, though smaller, could help provide more information to ITER” (Huang, 2021).

Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, in an interview published in the Global Times, “cautioned that as the technology is still in the experimental stage, it still needs at least 30 years […] to come out of the lab” (Yang and Shen, 2021). Wang Yugang, a professor of nuclear physics at Peking University, agrees that the challenges to be faced by this kind of project are still many. His words are reported in a South China Morning Post article: “[the reactor] is fine for short-term operation” and “no man-made material could withstand the cumulative damage from subatomic particles over a period of years or decades” (Chen, 2020).

Either way, this new record represents fascinating news. The success of this experiment “is significant to future peaceful utilization of international fusion” (Yang and Shen, 2021). As said before, nuclear fusion does not involve greenhouse gasses: “if done right, it could pave the way for clean energy consumption in the future. And China's artificial Sun is doing exactly that” (Sharma, 2022).

Maria Elena Sassaroli holds a double master’s in International Relations at the University of Turin and Beijing Foreign Studies University and a bachelor’s in Chinese language and culture at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. After living in China as an exchange student in Suzhou and Chengdu, she worked as an intern at the Italian Consulate in Adelaide. Mainly focused on China’s domestic politics, she is also passionate about the Indo-Pacific’s socio-political developments, SDGs, and media and communication studies. She currently lives and works in Brussels for an international masters network. You can find Elena on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Institute of Plasma Physics Chinese Academy of Sciences. December 2021. “1,056 Seconds, another world record for EAST”. http://english.ipp.cas.cn/syxw/202112/t20211231_295485.html (accessed March 2022).

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Sharma, B. Indian Times. January 2022. “After Creating ‘Artificial Sun’ Hotter Than Sun, China’s Making ‘Artificial Moon’”. https://www.indiatimes.com/technology/news/china-ariticial-sun-moon-energy-project-559163.html (accessed March 2022).

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Chen, S. South China Morning Post. December 2020. “China’s ‘artificial sun’: misleadingly named but key to fusion energy hopes”. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3112935/chinas-artificial-sun-misleadingly-named-key-fusion-energy-hopes (accessed March 2022).

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