Recently, Germany had an important milestone in the long pursuit of controlled nuclear fusion. Their nuclear fusion machine was able to heat hydrogen gas to a staggering 80 million degrees Celsius. It also sustained a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second.
This revolutionary event is important because this means that, if we can produce and hold on to hydrogen plasma for a certain amount of time, we will then be able to harness this clean and basically limitless form energy.
Now, this past week, the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei, China made an announcement. Their own nuclear fusion machine called the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has produced hydrogen plasma at 49.999 million degrees Celsius. It also held onto it for an impressive 102 seconds, which beats Germany’s record of just a quarter of a second by quite a bit.
Notably, although China’s achievement is a big deal, they have not beaten the record of the hottest temperature produced from an experiment. The champion record still belongs to the Large Hadron Collider which produced 4 trillion degrees Celsius in 2012. This temperature is actually 250,000 times hotter than the center of our Sun.
In nuclear fusion, four isotopes of hydrogen-1 are fused into a helium-4, which releases of a tremendous amount of energy; however, it has always been a challenge to sustain hydrogen at very high temperatures long enough for us to harness it’s energy precisely because of the excessive temperatures involved in uniting the helium.
The key to achieve controlled nuclear fusion is a more stable alignment of the magnetic fields that are used to separate the plasma from the walls of the machine. Ultimately magnets are used to keep the hydrogen from touching the machine, as contact at those temperatures could spell doom for the tech.
The ultimate goal is to hit 100 million degrees Celsius, and sustain the resulting hydrogen plasma for over 1,000 seconds, or 17 minutes. The German team says it could conceivably sustain its plasma for as long as 30 minutes at their temperatures, now that their ‘proof of concept’ experiment is out of the way.
However, we aren’t quite there yet. But hopefully, experiments over the coming months will help us sustain these temperature for longer, and maybe (one day) keep the system stable enough so that we can harness the necessary energy.
Currently, energy is gathered from hydrogen by nuclear fission, which basically means that we split the nucleus of an atom into smaller neutrons and nuclei. This process is great because it produces energy that is millions of times more efficient than coal; however, it is also highly dangerous. Management of dangerous radioactive byproducts is also incredibly expensive.
And this is precisely why fusion is such a desirable energy source, because it produces high amounts energy, and leaves little or no radioactive waste or unwanted byproducts.
If we could make this a commercially viable energy source, it is estimated that there is a staggering 30 million years’ worth of fuel in seawater. That is a lot of power. The problem with many other forms of sustainable energy is that we already have very reliable, cheap source of energy from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, it is awful for the environment, and people are unwilling to sacrifice economics for the for something as pesky as clear air to breath.
However, fusion is cheap enough that the transition would be easy…if we can ever make it happen.
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