HEFEI, China (Reuters) – China aims to complete and start generating electricity from an experimental nuclear fusion reactor by around 2040, a senior scientist involved in the project said, as it strives to develop and commercialize a revolutionary clean energy source.
China is preparing to restart its stalled national nuclear reactor program after a three-year moratorium on new approvals, but at a state laboratory in the city of Hefei in China’s Anhui province, scientists are looking beyond the splitting of raw atoms to pursue nuclear fusion, where power is generated by combining nuclei together, an attempt compared by skeptics to “putting the sun in a box”.
While nuclear fusion could revolutionize energy production, with pilot projects targeting energy production at 10 times the input, no fusion project has so far created a net increase in energy. Critics say the commercially viable merger is still fifty years in the future.
China has already spent about 6 billion yuan ($893 million) on a large doughnut-shaped facility known as a tokamak, which uses extremely high temperatures to boil hydrogen isotopes into a plasma, the merging and releasing energy. If this energy can be used, it will require only small amounts of fuel and create virtually no radioactive waste.
Song Yuntao, deputy director of the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Hefei Institute of Physical Sciences, said Thursday that although the technological challenges remain immense, the project has received additional funding of 6 billion yuan and new construction plans are underway.
“In five years, we will start building our fusion reactor, which will take another 10 years to build. Once that’s built, we’ll build the electricity generator and start producing electricity around 2040,” he said at the site, built on a green peninsula jutting out into a lake.
China has been researching fusion since 1958, but at the current stage it’s still more about international cooperation than competition, Song said. The country is a member of the 35-nation ITER project, a 10 billion euro ($11.29 billion) fusion project being built in France.
China is responsible for manufacturing 9% of ITER’s components and plays a major role in core technologies such as magnetic confinement, as well as producing components that can withstand temperatures above 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit).
ITER is expected to generate the first plasma by 2025. A demonstration reactor will then be built, with the aim of creating 500 megawatts of power from just 50 megawatts of input, a tenfold energy yield.
Despite critics saying reliable fusion power is unrealistic, Song said he was confident breakthroughs were on the way.
“Because we now have a lot of technology, many challenges in plasma physics have been overcome, and I think that will speed up the whole process,” he said.
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Reporting by David Stanway; edited by Christian Schmollinger