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China, through its "artificial sun" tokamak reactor, just set a new world record for sustained plasma reaction. This device, according to reports, ran at 120-million Celsius for 101 seconds, a breakthrough that could pave the way for a carbon-neutral energy future.

That, Popular Mechanics specifically reported, is a huge step, although it is still far from the exact sustained energy for fusion.

The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak or EAST, or HT-7U, is a custom-built fusion reactor that has run in different stages since 2006.

Like many of the tokamak experiments globally, EAST has previously reached fusion. As a refresher, inside the donut-shaped, or at times, more spherical, containment of a tokamak, sun-hot plasma is swirling in a circle that has held in place by the so-called "supercooled electromagnets."

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(Photo: Xiang Gao, Yao Yang, Tao Zhang, Haiqing Liu, Guoqiang Li, Tingfeng Ming, Zixi Liu, Yumin Wang, Long Zeng, Xiang Han et al. on Wikimedia Commons)
Experimental setup for high-βN discharges in the 2015 EAST Tokamak campaign. EAST vacuum vessel and plasma current direction. The three main in-vessel materials are molybdenum for the first wall, graphite for the lower divertor plate, and tungsten for the upper divertor plate.

Magnetic Field

Such a magnetic field is the only thing that floats between 350-million-degree plasma and a bunch of human-made materials that evidently cannot withstand that temperature. More so, the plasma is resulting from smashing different nuclei together, fusing them, instead of splitting them.

This necessitates a large energy investment, which critics claim, means fusion will never actually get off the ground. And up to now, all tokamaks are working for only a scant few seconds at lower temperatures before an occurrence goes wrong.

This is the reason EAST, as described by the Institute of Plasma Physics Chinese Academy of Sciences, which just appropriately "turned on" in December 2020, as mentioned, operating for 101 seconds at 120 million Celsius is such a great deal. This, the said report specified, is a "double whammy," quite a long runtime at a tremendously high temperature.

Reason for Such an Extraordinarily Hot Temperature

In 2018, China's "artificial sun" tokamak reaction reached 180 million degrees Fahrenheit or approximately 82 million degrees Celsius. Although back then, it could only withstand the plasma for roughly 10 seconds.

That is not hot or long enough, but 120 million degrees Celsius and 101 seconds, which EAST attained in late May, definitely are.

Therefore, this is a record for both the necessitated power-generating temperature, and the duration for retaining the temperature at a stable level.

What's the reason for such an extraordinarily hot temperature? The answer is that, after all, the sun is operating at only 15 million degrees Celsius.

Although it also has a huge advantage due to its gigantic size, getting a support from gravity that helps to smash together its atoms.

A Long Way from Ignition

Earthbound tokamaks, instead of using gravity, need to heat to many million more degrees to make the atoms responsive to the smash.

While the new record of China's artificial sun is impressive, it is still quite a long way from self-sustaining plasma or ignition. That will engage possibly even higher temperatures that are held for a more extended time.

As for the world's other high-profile reactors, the United Kingdom's MAST reactor, as reported last month on BBC News via Yahoo! News, recently landed the headlines with a new exhaust system that lessens the heat 10 times better compared to its predecessor.

In the meantime, the global International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or ITER is on track to construct the largest tokamak ever, with the first-ever plasma projected in 2030. Each experimental reactor has objectives of helping push technology forward to assist all the others.

EAST's future involves learned by ITER and the KSTAR of Korea, which held the previous fusion record, MAST, and even private tokamak researchers that chip away at the major obstacles to fusion energy.

All of the aforementioned share the same goal: to sustain a tremendously hot reaction and keep their equipment safely operating for the longest possible time.

Related information is shown on Mr. Scientific's YouTube video below:

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