China readies nuclear reactor in bid to harness ‘Sun in a box’ technology

China has completed the construction of a reactor intended for experimental nuclear fusion that has been likened to "putting the Sun in a box" as the world races to find alternatives to fossil fuel use.

Chinese state media announced that the HL-2M machine, based in a research centre in Chengdu, the capital city of southwest China’s Sichuan province, will become operational in 2020.

Nuclear fusion technology – combining rather than splitting atoms to create energy in a process that mimics the Sun – has long held the promise of a means to a never-ending supply of clean energy.

But its full realisation from fusion to efficient energy has so far eluded scientists, who have been unable to come up with a system that creates more energy than it uses. 

China is among several states and private companies who are working on projects to make nuclear fusion a reality. 

Gao Zhe, a physics professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, told the SCMP of mastering nuclear fusion: “There is no guarantee that all these problems will be solved. But if we don’t do it, the problems will definitely not be solved.”

Critics of nuclear technology as a replacement for fossil fuels argue that it is too expensive and impractical to make it a viable alternative, but that has not stopped a global effort to crack the solution. 

China is a member of International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) project along with the European Union, the US, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia, and has said it will feed its new technology into that project.

The focus of Iter, which is the world’s most expensive international science project at £15.5bn, is a nuclear fusion reactor in the south of France which has already produced energy on a small scale.

"Fusion has been one of the energies that has brought people together", said Juan Matthews, a visiting professor in nuclear energy technology at The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute. 

Iter is scheduled to become operational in 2025. 

Despite the collaborative approach to creating sustainable fusion technology, states and private companies have a stake in creating their own marketable elements. 

Iter and several other fusion experiments, including the HL-2M, use a doughnut shaped chamber called a tokamak – an invention first developed by the Soviets in the 1960s.

Last month the UK announced a landmark £220m investment in the development of a project to develop its own, more compact, version of the tokamak it hopes will be less expensive to build. 

"Everybody recognises the huge potential of fusion," said Ian Chapman, the CEO of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority. "If you can make that a reality in a market competitive way then the impact on future climate change could be huge. It’s not surprising that everyone is keen."

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