China’s Nuclear Fusion Experiment Just Annihilated Germany’s Record

February 8, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Interior of Alcator C-Mod showing the molybdenum tiles used as first wall material
Photo credit: Mike Garrett/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

They sustained hydrogen plasma for 102 seconds!

It was just last week that physicists from Germany managed to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius (144 million degrees Fahrenheit) and sustain a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second.  This was revolutionary in the field of nuclear fusion — a way to produce a clean, almost-limitless energy — the same energy that fuels the sun.

And now, physicists from China have announced that their own nuclear fusion machine, known as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), produced hydrogen plasma at 49.999 million degrees Celsius, and held on to it for 102 seconds.  Amazing!

Generating and maintaining such high temperatures that last long enough to harness the energy produced by the reaction is the key to finally achieving controlled nuclear fusion.  Maintaining high temperatures is needed to allow for a more stable alignment of the magnetic fields that are used to keep the plasma, as well as the particles and energy produced from the reaction, away from the walls of the machine.

SEE ALSO: Historic First: Nuclear Fusion Reactor in Germany Produces Hydrogen Plasma

Nuclear fusion is a very desirable energy source — it produces large amounts of energy when atoms are fused together, but produces no radioactive or other unwanted wastes.  The problem is that it requires recreating the conditions of the sun — not an easy task.

Physicists say the ideal temperature to sustain hydrogen plasma is 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit), and this temperature was what China was hoping to hit last week.  However, they made it to just under 50 million degrees Celsius (90 million degrees Fahrenheit) according to Stephen Chen from the South China Morning Post.  The team’s ultimate goal is to hit 100 million degrees Celsius and sustain the resulting plasma for 17 minutes.

However, the German team said at that temperature, they could possibly sustain their plasma for as long as 30 minutes.

Although the results out of China are very exciting, they are based only on a statement by the Hefei Institute of Physical Science, meaning there currently is no peer-reviewed paper detailing the experiment.

As with any new technology, we are likely decades away from being able to harness the power of nuclear fusion, and that’s if we figure out how to do it at all.  Even so, these past two weeks have been pretty exciting.

So now we just have to wait and see who will win the race of sustaining plasma for a longer period of time.  Team Germany or Team China?

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