China aims to have nuclear fusion power in six years with new ‘Mega Lab’

A “mega-laboratory” that will aim to produce nuclear fusion power in just six years has been approved by the Chinese government.

Once operational, the machine will generate 50 million amps of electricity, about twice as much as the Z Pulsed Power Facility operated by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, the current record holder for such a machine.

China’s plans were outlined by Peng Xianjue, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics and one of the country’s top nuclear weapons experts, in an online meeting hosted by think tank Techxcope on September 9.

According to his presentation, as reported by the South China Morning PostChinese researchers will attempt to create a fusion reaction by using an incredibly powerful electrical charge to ignite two types of hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium.

Left: A stock illustration depicts an atom. Right: A file image of the flag of China fluttering in the sky. Nuclear fusion is the joining together of atomic nuclei to generate energy, and China aims to do so with a new reactor by 2028.

The intense energy and pressure released by the charge will fuse the atomic nuclei together, releasing more energy which will then be harnessed to produce power for the grid.

At the meeting, Peng said, “Fusion ignition is the crown jewel of science and technology in the world today.”

Scientists around the world have been trying to develop a working nuclear fusion power plant for decades. Although fusion has been achieved in the laboratory, no one has yet succeeded in generating more electricity from fusion reactions than the electricity needed to produce the reaction in the first place.

Fusion involves forcing atomic nuclei together under intense conditions, creating a heavier nucleus than before. The mass of the heavier nucleus is not as heavy as that of the two nuclei before they joined, and this remaining weight is transformed into energy.

If scientists can overcome the hurdles, fusion promises to be a clean, powerful and abundant source of energy.

There are many approaches to fusion, including magnetic confinement and powerful lasers. One approach involves a reactor called a Z-pinch machine, which uses an electric current inside a hot gas called plasma to generate a magnetic field. This magnetic field then compresses – pinches – the plasma to create the conditions necessary for fusion.

For years Z clamps have been used to simulate the effects of nuclear weapons. Now, there are parallels between this research and the potential energy applications of fusion.

The Chinese reactor, known as Z-FFR, will be based in a “mega laboratory” according to the South China Morning Post. It is expected to be built by 2025 in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province. It could then produce electricity as early as 2028 before becoming commercially operational by 2035, according to an estimate reported by Peng’s team.

There will be downsides to this approach, however. On the one hand, it will need several high-performance power capacitors and a reaction chamber capable of withstanding the voltage of thousands of explosive electric shocks every day, once every ten seconds or so.

China’s approach will also be something of a mix between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. Instead of the energy produced by the fusion reactor going directly to the grid, it will power a stream of particles that will strike uranium and generate a fission reaction – in which nuclei are pulled apart rather than joined together.

China’s goals of generating electricity by 2028 and commercializing it by 2035 are on the optimistic side of the general consensus that commercial fusion power is at least a decade or two away.

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