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article imageOp-Ed: Chinese fusion reactor hits 100 million degrees

By Paul Wallis     Nov 14, 2018 in Technology
Beijing - China has achieved a true milestone by attaining a temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius. This is an unparalleled temperature, and over seven times the estimated temperature of the sun’s core. This is a game breaker, not just a game changer.
The big breakthrough was achieved by China's Institute of Plasma Physics Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) facility. This level of power is capable of generating enormous amounts of energy for use in power systems. It may also be an emerging answer to China’s hideously difficult fossil fuel pollution problems.
Big issues
The super-efficient fusion reactor has been a sort of Holy Grail for physicists and engineers for many decades. China’s reactor, in fact, has gone well beyond the parameters for energy production. It’s not necessary to deliver 100 million degrees to provide the sort of power required for electricity generation. 1 million degrees would be quite adequate, and infinitely more efficient than the clunky, extremely toxic 19th century fossil fuel power currently in use.
The extremely high level of efficiency required to achieve 100 million degrees, however, takes China’s fusion program to a new, and fascinating, level. This sort of power can be harnessed to produce space vehicle drives, weapons, and less appealingly, potentially catastrophic meltdowns.
(Also note that the 100 million degree figure would have to be reached with very small amounts of material, for the sake of both safety and viability of practical research. You don’t just suddenly generate fusion in tons of material. Research of this kind would have to be done in micrograms, easily manageable amounts. Even so, it’s still far more efficient than any previous experimentation.)
The mere fact that China was able to safely achieve this very high temperature, on the other hand, points to excellent technology, good safety management, and more to come.
Fusion power is an ongoing subject of research around the world. The United States has no less than 20 research programs under way. The EU has multiple research organisations involved in its research programs.
Future issues
If the balance of fusion technology seems to be tilted towards China, you can expect the rest of the world to challenge this situation. Fusion power has almost unspeakable commercial potential, and can deliver another Holy Grail, cheap power, in vast amounts.
In the current political environment, that sort of competition may get ugly. Accusations of scientific espionage, real or imaginary, are common. The sheer value of fusion power could cause some rather grim situations, including an “Intellectual Property War” for key technologies. That’s not at all unlikely, and could cause global IP piracy to escalate from its already horrific levels.
Militarily, fusion power isn’t an instant option for anyone. Fusion warheads could be destructive, sure, but they could also be own goals. They’d be expensive to make, very hard to hide, and difficult to manage as active warheads. (For example, can you trigger fusion-able materials the same way you can trigger fissionable materials? Probably not, with existing technologies.) A fusion weapons system could also cause a very negative response from other nuclear powers who don’t want to be at a disadvantage against these potentially very high yield, much more powerful, weapons.
Technological advantages, however, can play out economically in very different ways. China could become an energy exporter using fusion power. That would be a gigantic cash cow, and also integrate Chinese power supplies with the rest of the world. Goodbye oil, coal, etc., and hello Gung Ho Fat Choy PLC, your friendly global power company. Fossil fuel economies couldn’t compete, on any level, even in theory, with the possible efficiencies of fusion power systems. Fossil fuels require vast infrastructures, massive amounts of raw materials, and an entire global distribution system. Fusion doesn’t require anything but the means to generate fusion reactions. It can ship its power anywhere.
If that sounds like a real power struggle, (excuse the expression) with fusion as the only working competitive option, you see the problems. Whole fossil fuel dependent national economies would crash, and the rest of the world would have to reconfigure to fusion.
Strong positives for fusion
On a much more positive note, fusion power could also deliver the clean energy required to end the global pollution disaster which is killing people worldwide. Fusion can use steam, and/or any kind of secondary pressure or magnetic systems, to drive any type of power system. These types of power systems don’t and can’t generate microparticulate matter, which is the truly toxic part of fossil fuel pollution, or chemical toxins.
This clean power would also be able to power electric vehicles, eliminating the endless toxic horrors of vasoconstrictive exhaust fumes which are contributing to any number medical issues, like hypertension and coronary disease, two of the world’s biggest, and most expensive, mass pandemic conditions. Even asthma, another galloping global medical environmental issue, could benefit.
(Someone will have to explain to me at some point why epidemiologists never seem to refer to the 16 billion tons of pollutants released in to the air every year as an environmental factor in any type of disease, beyond vague causal associations. Lazy, or too damn gutless to mention the obvious?)
Anyway, fusion is now over the horizon in terms of a realistic future technology. It’s been coming for a long time, but this is the first real ray of sunlight in a new day for energy production. Let’s just hope our fearless “leaders” don’t turn it in to another nightmare for humanity.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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