Nuclear fusion has been a fantasy for decades. But recent breakthroughs signal the holy grail of clean energy could finally be close to reality. Who’ll get there first?
On May 30, 2021, a team of 300 nuclear scientists and engineers at the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) reactor at China’s Hefei Institutes of Physical Science, about halfway between Shanghai and Wuhan, accomplish something human beings have never done before. A new world record is established.
They’ve created a small “artificial sun” that burns hotter—120 million degrees Celsius or 216 million degrees Fahrenheit, 15 times hotter than the core of our actual Sun—than any temperature previously reached on Earth.
Now the question is how long they can keep the reaction going.
Superheated hydrogen plasma twists as it pushes around a circular path inside the reactor’s doughnut-shaped metal tube.
A series of superconducting toroidal and poloidal magnetic coils—an innovation unique to EAST—keeps the streams of superheated plasma from expanding outward or collapsing inward, whipping around the core.
Crucially, the powerful magnetic field also contains the plasma’s extreme temperatures, which would instantaneously melt any natural or man-made structure that attempted to hold it.
At these extreme temperatures, hydrogen ions in the plasma smash into each other, fusing together to create helium and giving off enough energy that could facilitate a self-sustaining reaction.
The team stands behind their computers in a room not unlike NASA’s Mission Control, holding their collective breaths as they watch a reaction now almost five times as long as anyone has created before.
And just like that the reaction collapses, like every attempt before it by every experimental fusion reactor on Earth. But that was expected. As incredible as the EAST team’s achievement is, the going joke is that nuclear fusion is mere decades away—and always will be.