China aims to be a nuclear fusion power within the next 50 years

14 Jul 2017

Illustration of a nuclear chain reaction. Image: GiroScience/Shutterstock

The race to create the first sustainable ‘artificial sun’ is hotting up, with China’s top nuclear fusion scientist promising to have it within 50 years.

Nuclear fusion could usher in a new age of technology, as a source of energy that is not only close to limitless, but cheap and clean.

The only problem is that it is still very experimental, with teams of researchers around the globe, from Canada to Germany, so far only revealing a series of baby steps towards the end goal of a stable plasma.

One of those countries in the race is China. According to Science and Technology Daily via the South China Morning Postplans are to have a nuclear fusion reactor up and running there within the next 50 to 60 years.

According to the country’s lead nuclear fusion scientist, Yuntao Song, China will have made significant progress on nuclear fusion technology by 2023 with a working, small-scale reactor. The subsequent decades are likely to be spent upscaling and improving the technology.

Song added that from here on in, he expected the nuclear fusion reactor at the Hefei research facility to double the duration of plasma stability every 16 to 17 months.

The immediate goal is to sustain it for more than 1,000 seconds using the more familiar tokamak reactor design, something it hopes to achieve in around six years’ time.

Doubts remain

Dissenting comments have been put forward, however, as nuclear physics professor Yuxin Liu from Peking University said he thinks the timeline put forward by Song is an unlikely one.

It is possible, he said, that public opinion could sway dramatically as a result of a major accident, or even just a shift in global politics.

However, Liu added that it should be the ultimate goal of energy researchers.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a working nuclear fusion reactor is not expected until 2054, four years after the EUROfusion group said it would hope to have fusion energy on the grid.

Updated, 11.36am, 17 July 2017: This article was updated to clarify the names of Yuntao Song and Yuxin Liu.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic