China has managed to design an "artificial sun" six and a half times hotter than the real one.
The well-named "artificial sun" Chinese EAST, ambitious scientific project initiated in 2006, has reached an unprecedented temperature record: 100 million degrees Celsius. More than six and a half times the 15 million that reign in the heart of our star ... A first that probably announces the mastery, one day, of the grail of energy production: nuclear fusion.
A little less than fifteen million degrees Celsius. It is the temperature that reigns in the heart of our star, the Sun. A rather stifling atmosphere, but which would almost pass for a refrigerator in front of that - more than six and a half times higher - reached in what can be described as "artificial sun": 100 million degrees Celsius. Canicular ... even suffocating!
This "artificial sun" called EAST, for Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, is the work of China. Local scientists, supported by specialists from around the world, have been working since 2006 to design and build this "tokamak", a Russian term for a magnetic confinement chamber in which a plasma is generated. The purpose of this type of installation: to master, one day, the scientific grail of nuclear fusion.
As they announced recently, scientists from the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASHIPS) and their colleagues got closer to it, reaching this unprecedented temperature record of 100 million degrees and this, with a discharge pulse of 100 seconds.
A power monster
To achieve this, not less than 10 megawatts of electric power will have been needed, as much as that which can be generated by three onshore wind turbines. A colossal energy that scientists could control only at the cost of a learned control of the reactions at stake in the installation.
In the Chinese "Tokamak", it is indeed the magnetic fields induced by the displacement of the plasma injected into the chamber that maintains its movement. In the key, a reaction rather unstable, but a much higher temperature. This world first therefore opens the way towards what many consider as a clean and inexhaustible way of producing energy: nuclear fusion.
"This is no doubt a significant step forward for China's nuclear fusion program and a significant development for the world," commented ABC News Australia's Matthew Hole, assistant professor at Australian National University. "The benefit is simple in that it allows [large] energy production on a very large scale, with zero greenhouse gas emissions and no long-lived radioactive waste."
A technology still in its infancy
Nevertheless, many obstacles still have to be overcome before doing so. Quoted by the Xinhua News Agency, the specialist Zhang Tiankan pointed out that scientists should go further to raise the temperature to "hundreds of millions of degrees" and extend "the pulse to thousands of seconds ". They will also have to improve the controllability of the reaction.
In addition to the technical challenge, the main obstacle to the development of this technology is the "fuel" needed for its implementation: tritium. An isotope of hydrogen much less abundant on Earth than this nuclide which it shares the same number of protons: 1 atom of tritium for 1018 atoms of hydrogen, as underlines the French nuclear safety authority (ASN) in its book White Tritium, released in 2010. Not as easy to find as oil ...
As it moves at great speed, science still seems to be a few light-years away from sustainably surpassing our precious star, the Sun.