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China remains at the forefront of technology. Sometimes, this seems beyond the realms of our imaginations. Yet, it is true: China is testing a ‘sun’ with the potential to power the world.
The sun

The HL-2M could produce enough clean energy to power the world. Image: Image by WikiImages

Artificial sunbeams

The reactions within the surface of the sun are called nuclear fusion. This is a reaction that occurs when atomic nuclei combine. They form different particles as a result, and the difference between the original mass and the outcome either releases or absorbs energy.

Our sun is made up mainly of hydrogen and helium atoms. When nuclear fusion occurs, the very high temperature and pressure generate the energy we feel as heat and light.

The sun is about 5,600 Celsius on its surface and the centre reaches 15 million Celsius. This compares to about 6,000 Celsius at the centre of the Earth. That is a whole lot of energy to try and replicate!

 Chinese Southwestern Institute of Physics.

The HL-2M artificial sun is managed by the Chinese Southwestern Institute of Physics. Image: CNNC

Remaking the sun

Producing this amount of energy is no mean feat. The big issue is trying to manage a way to contain the extremely hot plasma to replicate the material of the sun. The plasma also needs to be kept stable to allow nuclear fusion to occur.

It looks like Chinese scientists have cracked this puzzle with the HL-2M Tokamak. This machine is expected to be in operation in 2020.

If it works, the device could potentially replicate nuclear fusion and run at a temperature of over 200 million Celsius – much hotter than even the core of the sun.

Duan Xuru, head of the Southwestern Institute of Physics, made the announcement at the 2019 China Fusion Energy Conference. The Institute is managed under the China National Nuclear Corporation.

Clean energy

The importance of this breakthrough cannot be underestimated. If the HL-2M works, it could generate all the power the world needs, without any waste. Imagine replacing every fossil fuel with completely clean energy!

The real-life Ironman?

I found it hard to wrap my head around this, but the concept is awe-inspiring. It sounds like something from a Marvel movie!

Ironman used an Arc Reactor, which echoes the HL-2M as a power source created with fusion. This was (fictionally of course!) powered by Palladium at its core.

HL-2M isn’t quite the same thing. It is even more interesting. The machine weighs 450 tonnes and is built from Polodial field coil systems. It uses a doughnut shape chamber called a Tokamak which contains the fusion power so scientists can study it.

There is a 90-tonne copper coil which will manage the electrical current of three million amps. This creates the huge magnetic field required to contain the plasma. Of course, this is not just an inspiring but also an extremely dangerous project to test.

Inside a Tokamak chamber

The Tokamak chamber contains the extremely hot plasma to keep it stable. Image: Wiki

A world of two suns

The HL-2M is not the only artificial sun being built. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is also being built in France. It is said to be able to reach 150 million degrees. It is also the most expensive international science project ever! The budget is estimated to be €20 billion.

ITER is expected to be ready in 2025, so if China sustains this pace, it will be a race to the finish that they will win by five years.

China has been at the forefront of so many technological developments, that this doesn’t seem like a surprise. However, there is a concern about the power this will enable the Chinese government to wield.

Scientists in China have produced some amazing tech, such as the first-ever AI news anchor. However, they have also produced killer drones and are selling them around the world.

I just hope that the incredible potential of the HL-2M is used as a force for good. This could be the biggest environmental breakthrough in our generation.