China's 'Artificial Sun' Was Briefly the Hottest Spot in Our Solar System

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For a brief period of time earlier this fall, a nuclear fusion reactor in China produced temperatures nearly seven times hotter than the core of the sun. (Photo: Matej Pavlansky/Shutterstock)

It appears that the light of the moon isn't the only thing China is interested in improving.

Scientists from China's Institute of Plasma Physics announced earlier this week that the university's nuclear fusion machine — officially known as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak or EAST — had successfully achieved a temperature exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit). That's a temperature nearly seven times hotter than the core of the sun.

It's absolutely mind-boggling to consider, but for a brief period of time the EAST reactor in China was the hottest spot in our entire solar system.

While stealing temperature records from the sun is impressive alone, the point behind the 360-metric-ton EAST fusion reactor is to push humanity ever closer to a revolution in energy production.

"It's certainly a significant step for China's nuclear fusion program and an important development for the whole world," associate professor Matthew Hole from the Australian National University told ABC News Australia. "The benefit is simple in that it is very large-scale base load [continuous] energy production, with zero greenhouse gas emissions and no long-life radioactive waste."

Scientists are hopeful

China's Institute of Plasma Physics' Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak or EAST.
Meet China's Institute of Plasma Physics' Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak or EAST. (Photo: Institute of Plasma Physics Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Unlike nuclear fission, which relies on the splitting of a heavy, unstable nucleus into two lighter nuclei, fusion instead squeezes two light nuclei together to unleash vast amounts of energy. It's a process that not only powers the sun (and stars in general) but is also low on radioactive waste. In fact, the main output is helium — an element that the Earth is surprisingly "light" on reserves.

Tokamaks like the one at China's Institute of Plasma Physics or, as shown in the 360-video below, at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), heat heavy isotopes of deuterium and tritium using extreme electric currents to create a charged plasma. Powerful magnets then keep this superheated gas stable, allowing scientists to raise the heat to scorching levels. For now, that process is only temporary, but scientists around the world are hopeful that the ultimate goal — a burning of plasma maintained by its own fusion reaction — is achievable.

According to John Wright, principal research scientist at MIT's PSFC, we're still an estimated three decades away from building a self-sustaining fusion reaction. In the meantime, progress must be made not only in maintaining the high-energy fusion reaction, but also bringing down the costs of building the reactors.

"These experiments can easily happen within 30 years," Wright told Newsweek. "With luck, and societal will, we will see the first electricity generating fusion power plants before another 30 years pass. As the plasma physicist Artsimovich said: 'Fusion will be ready when society needs it.'"