Sorry Germany, but China just trumped your nuclear fusion record

8 Feb 2016

The EAST nuclear fusion device in which the test was undertaken. Image via Institute of Plasma Physics/Chinese Academy of Sciences

You can always count on China to one-up even the most advanced scientific breakthroughs. News has broken that a German team’s impressive nuclear fusion reactor findings have been quickly usurped, and then some.

Last week, the energy producing sector was raising an eyebrow at the news that a team of German researchers from the Max Planck Institute had developed a nuclear fusion experimental device referred to as the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) stellerator.

Aside from just having a cool science-fiction name, the device was meant to test some of the latest possibilities of future nuclear fusion technology in what was being described as a “truly remarkable achievement”.

Its purpose was soon fulfilled after the team confirmed the device was able to heat injected hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius and sustained the plasma within for just under one-quarter of a second, which was, indeed, a remarkable achievement.

But alas, according to the South China Morning Post, a Chinese team of researchers developing its own nuclear fusion device – the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) – has managed to sustain plasma for a duration hundreds of times longer than the German team.

According to their findings, by heating up the hydrogen to temperatures of the slightly cooler 49.999m degrees Celsius, the team from the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei were able to maintain the plasma for an incredible 102 seconds.

Nuclear Fusion China

The plasma generated in China’s EAST reactor. Image via Hefei Institute of Physical Science/Chinese Academy of Sciences

This effectively means that, within the confines of their EAST reactor, they were able to re-create the sun’s energy for nearly two minutes.

It’s still a long way off being the ideal environment for creating nuclear fusion energy, the team admits, with hopes that they would have been able to achieve temperatures of 100m degrees Celsius for almost 17 minutes, or 1,020 seconds.

In the spirit of a nuclear weapon-free ‘Cold War’ between the German and Chinese teams, the German researchers have said that it will now be aiming to achieve sustained plasma in the W7-X for a period of 30 minutes.

Also playing in Germany’s favour is the fact that the new results from China have only been announced by the authorities in the university, and have not been peer reviewed by an international committee.

So far, the hottest temperature to have been created artificially in the lab remains that reached by the gargantuan Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, which managed to achieve temperatures of 4 trillion degrees Celsius back in 2012.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic