Chinese nuclear researchers have reached an important milestone in the global quest to exploit energy from nuclear fusion, a process that occurs naturally in the sun.
The team of researchers from China's Plasma Physics Institute announced this week that plasma in its experimental advanced superconductive Tokamak (EAST) – called "artificial sun" – reached a massive 100 million degrees Celsius, the temperature required to maintain a fusion reaction that produces more power than it takes to run.
To put it in perspective, the temperature at the core of the sun is said to be about 15 million degrees Celsius, making the plasma in China's "artificial sun" more than six times warmer than the original.
The news comes after China shocked the science community last month with plans to launch an "artificial moon" that is bright enough to replace city streets by 2020.
In view of ABC, Professor Matthew Hole of Australian National University said that performance was an important step for nuclear fusion science.
"It's really an important step for China's nuclear fusion program and an important development for the whole world," said Dr. Hole, adding that fusion reactors can be the solution to global energy issues.
The advantage is simple because it is very large bass load [continuous] energy production, with greenhouse gas emissions and no radioactive waste in radioactive life.
"It provides a silver bullet energy solution … provided you can utilize it."
He added that nuclear fusion reactors also avoid risks associated with current nuclear reactors, which can be adapted to hazardous weapons and are prone to enabling catastrophic melting.
The news went viral on Chinese social media, with most users excited about the performance.
"There is nothing China can not do," said a user at Weibo.
Another explained that "if this technique is used, the world will no longer be worried about the energy crisis."
So how did China manage to remove it?
While current nuclear power plants are based on nuclear fission – a chain reaction where uranium atoms are shared to free up energy – nuclear fusion effectively does the opposite by forcing atoms to merge.
One way to accomplish this on earth is to use what is called tokamak, an apparatus designed to replicate the nuclear fusion process that occurs naturally in the sun and stars to generate energy.
The east of 100 million Celsius feat stands 11 meters long, has a diameter of 8 meters and weighs about 360 tons.
It uses a ring to place heavy and super-heavy isotopes – atomic variations – of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium.
The isotopes are heated by powerful electric currents within the Tokamak, tearing electrons away from their atoms to form a charged plasma of hydrogen ions.
Powerful magnets that glue the inner walls of the EAST then contain the plasma into a small area to maximize the likelihood of ions melting together.
When ions melt, they give off a large amount of energy, which can then be used to power a power station and produce electricity.
The Chinese research group said they could reach the record temperature using different new technologies to heat and control plasma, but could only maintain the state for about 10 seconds.
The latest breakthrough provided experimental evidence that the 100 million degree Celsius label achieved is achievable, according to the China Institute of Plasma Physics.
Dr Hole said that while the potential for nuclear fusion as a pure energy source has been hit by major investments from countries around the world – including China – Australia has fallen behind.
"As a nation, Australia is about to lose its ability in merger," said Dr Hole, adding that many of his colleagues have switched fields or looking for work abroad because of lack of investment in fusion science.
Australia used to have good investments in this space, but it has really neglected in recent years. "
He said that the achievement of EAST will be important for the development of the next major experiment in global nuclear fusion science: the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
ITER is currently built in southern France with cooperation from 35 nations including China. ITER is the first fusion unit to consistently produce network power that produces 500 megawatts of clean and sustainable power.
Since EAST has a similar design to ITER but on a much smaller scale, it is likely that it is an important testing equipment during the development of ITER, according to the China Institute for Plasma Physics.
ITER is expected to be ready to create its first plasma and start operations in 2025.