Just a few days ago, a seemingly incredible new video made the rounds on social media. Many users claimed that the video depicted China launching its first-ever “artificial sun” into space, an idea which sounds ridiculous on the face of it. But judging purely from the footage, the average viewer could very well see it that way. It shows what appears to be a giant orb of light rising in the distance, with several onlookers watching and filming with their phones in awe. It is certainly a spectacle to behold, and some may wonder how humanity has achieved such a seemingly impossible feat in a relatively short amount of time.
Only, that isn’t an artificial sun. What the video actually depicts is a typical rocket launch, which makes sense when you begin to notice the massive cloud of white steam that appears right when the “sun” leaves the ground. When viewed or filmed during darker hours, rockets tend to look like “suns” from a distance due to how their exhausts light up the sky, and when looking at other videos of rocket launches, you can see a similar effect. So although calling the rocket an “artificial sun” is effective for garnering clicks, it doesn’t represent anything that is happening in reality.
Except that, funnily enough, China has indeed constructed an artificial sun of sorts. Reports about it even came out at around the same time as the aforementioned video, and this “sun” represents a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology. Essentially, China managed to keep a nuclear fusion reaction going for over 17 minutes, the longest that such a reaction has ever been sustained.
How was this “sun” created?
They accomplished this using a tokamak, a machine that utilizes magnetic fields to concentrate plasma into a circular pattern known as a torus. The machine superheats the plasma’s hydrogen atoms so they can reach hundreds of millions of degrees Fahrenheit. This obscenely high temperature is ultimately necessary to replicate the fusion process that occurs in stars, hence the “artificial sun” name. In the case of China’s record-breaking experiment, the tokamak heated the plasma to a whopping 126 million degrees Fahrenheit, which is about five times hotter than our sun.
“This sounds impressive and all, but what’s the point of making an artificial sun, anyway?” some of you may ask. The reason is actually quite significant; it could become a fantastic source of renewable energy. The plasma’s astronomically high temperature causes its atomic nuclei to collide, producing energy that serves as a useful source of electricity.
The notion that nuclear fusion could be a renewable energy source may lead to some feeling uneasy. After all, when we think of the word “nuclear,” our minds immediately jump to immensely destructive nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants that can leak radioactivity and cause untold environmental damage. However, these inventions are dangerous largely because they are made from nuclear fission rather than fusion.
Our current, imperfect solution to nuclear energy
Unlike nuclear fusion, which involves atomic nuclei fusing together, nuclear fission occurs when an atomic nucleus splits into two smaller nuclei. This process releases energy in a similar manner to nuclear fusion, albeit in smaller amounts, and this can be used to heat up the water inside nuclear power plants so that the resulting steam can activate a turbine to generate electricity.
Nuclear fission is widely used because it is significantly easier to achieve than nuclear fusion. Scientists have not been able to sustainably generate energy through nuclear fusion in the more than 70 years they have tried, as containing superheated plasma while preventing leakages is an exceptionally challenging task. Additionally, for nuclear fusion to be sustainable, it will need to generate more energy than it consumes, and scientists have not been able to build a tokamak that can reliably accomplish this.
Nuclear fission does not require anywhere near this much effort to achieve, and commonly-used metals, such as uranium and plutonium, make this process even easier. This already makes fission an enticing source of energy, but the benefits do not stop there. Although setting up a nuclear power plant regularly costs billions of dollars, maintaining one is relatively inexpensive, and fission produces significantly more energy than the average fossil fuel while generating fewer overall greenhouse gases to boot. All of this may be surprising to hear, but it actually makes nuclear fission a more sustainable energy source than most of the other sources we use, like gas and coal.
Unfortunately, the benefits of nuclear fission are undermined by a major downside: radioactive waste. Although the radioactive waste that is inevitably produced through nuclear fission is mostly harmless in small quantities, the vast amounts of waste generated in power plants ensure that, if leaked, its impact on life and the environment at large would not be minimal. High exposure to radiation can lead to serious illness or even death, and it can take thousands of years for the waste’s radioactivity to subside.
To prevent massive leakage of radioactive material from nuclear power plants, rigorous maintenance from workers as well as a high degree of protection from natural disasters and other risk factors are required. On the positive side, safety regulations regarding the operation of power plants have been developed to the point where the chance of an accident occurring is quite low. Unfortunately, as blunders like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown have demonstrated, when an accident does occur, the results are nothing short of disastrous.
A potentially groundbreaking solution
With this in mind, a more risk-free alternative to nuclear fission is worth considering, and this is where nuclear fusion shows its promise. Fusion emits no harmful greenhouse gases to speak of, and its main sources of fuel, which include deuterium and lithium, can be easily acquired from abundant resources such as ocean water.
Additionally, fusion does not result in any long-lasting radioactive material, completely eliminating the most dangerous aspect of fission, and even the radioactive tritium element used for and produced by fusion has a relatively short half-life. Even the risks associated with a tokamak accident are nonexistent, as the plasma immediately cools and ceases the fusion process whenever a disturbance takes place. On top of all this, fusion results in around four times the energy typically produced through fission, making the former an objectively superior source of power.
Of course, this all assumes that scientists are able to reliably sustain nuclear fusions in a cost-effective manner, and by all accounts, they simply aren’t there yet. But the recent success of China’s recent “artificial sun” experiment gives us plenty of reason to be excited about what the future of nuclear fusion technology has in store for us. If or when scientists successfully master the art of nuclear fusion, the state of our energy production could change dramatically for the better. This ideal future would not involve launching suns into the sky as the aforementioned viral video suggests, but it is nonetheless a future worth pursuing.
What are your thoughts on the progress China has made with its recent nuclear fusion experiment? Do you think this means nuclear fusion will be widely adopted within our lifetimes, or do you believe it’s little more than hype? Let us know in the comments below!