MASTERING the UNIVERSE
Men's Journal|September - October 2021
Nuclear fusion has been a fantasy for decades. But recent breakthroughs signal the holy grail of clean energy could finally be close to reality. Who’ll get there first?
CHARLES COXE
21 SECONDS.

On May 30, 2021, a team of 300 nuclear scientists and engineers at the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) reactor at China’s Hefei Institutes of Physical Science, about halfway between Shanghai and Wuhan, accomplish something human beings have never done before. A new world record is established.

30 seconds.

They’ve created a small “artificial sun” that burns hotter—120 million degrees Celsius or 216 million degrees Fahrenheit, 15 times hotter than the core of our actual Sun—than any temperature previously reached on Earth.

40 seconds.

Now the question is how long they can keep the reaction going.

50 seconds.

Superheated hydrogen plasma twists as it pushes around a circular path inside the reactor’s doughnut-shaped metal tube.

60 seconds.

A series of superconducting toroidal and poloidal magnetic coils—an innovation unique to EAST—keeps the streams of superheated plasma from expanding outward or collapsing inward, whipping around the core.

70 seconds.

Crucially, the powerful magnetic field also contains the plasma’s extreme temperatures, which would instantaneously melt any natural or man-made structure that attempted to hold it.

80 seconds.

At these extreme temperatures, hydrogen ions in the plasma smash into each other, fusing together to create helium and giving off enough energy that could facilitate a self-sustaining reaction.

90 seconds.

The team stands behind their computers in a room not unlike NASA’s Mission Control, holding their collective breaths as they watch a reaction now almost five times as long as anyone has created before.

101 seconds.

And just like that, the reaction collapses, like every attempt before it by every experimental fusion reactor on Earth. But that was expected. As incredible as the EAST team’s achievement is, the going joke is that nuclear fusion is mere decades away—and always will be.

UPWARDS TO THE VANGUARD

In principle, nuclear fusion is the same process that powers our Sun. Atoms (in the case of our Sun and most fusion reactors, hydrogen atoms) are pushed together with enough speed to overcome the natural repellent force of their protons, fusing them together. With hydrogen, this fusion produces larger atoms of harmless helium—as opposed to the more familiar technology of nuclear fission we currently use, which splits much heavier atoms like uranium or plutonium and creates problematic amounts of radioactive waste.

On Earth, scientists most often use the hydrogen isotope deuterium (H isotope) as the base fuel for fusion reactions, which works better than basic hydrogen in lab conditions. Deuterium (where the single proton in the atom’s nucleus is joined by a neutron) is so common in nature that a single gallon of seawater theoretically could produce the same energy as 300 gallons of gasoline. As with nuclear fission, fusion also produces a massive amount of energy that can then be harnessed and converted into electricity, although this is still often handled by using the resulting energy to heat water into steam to turn turbines, an inefficient process not far evolved beyond the centuries-old technology of waterwheels and windmills.

Beyond the absence of greenhouse gas emissions or horrendously dangerous waste products, fusion also has a pronounced advantage over nuclear fission when it comes to safety. In a standard nuclear reactor, a mishap always has the possibility of unleashing an out-of-control reaction or meltdown—nuclear power experts say this scenario is highly unlikely, but we only have to look at Chernobyl for a lesson in human hubris regarding forces beyond our control. In a fusion reactor, a mishap results in the immediate collapse of the reaction itself—no radiation leak, no disaster.

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