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China aims to generate energy via nuclear fusion by 2040

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China is hoping to get an experimental nuclear fusion reactor running by 2040, a senior scientist working on the project has said.

Reuters reports that the country is preparing to restart its stalled domestic nuclear reactor programme after a three-year moratorium on new approvals.

China has been researching nuclear fusion since 1958. However, according to Song Yuntao - deputy director of the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Heifei Institute of Physical Science -  international cooperation is now more important than competition. The country is a member of the 35-nation ITER project, a €10bn (£8.6bn) fusion project under construction in France. That project has been developing massive, complex, superconducting magnets to keep the reactor’s superheated plasma from touching the walls of the facility. 

Nuclear fusion has long been touted as a way to revolutionise energy production, with pilot projects targeting energy output at 10 times the input, but no fusion project so far has achieved a net energy increase. Commentators joke that commercially viable fusion always remains 50 years in the future.

China has already spent around 6 billion yuan (£682m) on a large doughnut-shaped installation known as a tokamak, which uses extremely high temperatures to boil hydrogen isotopes into a plasma, fusing them together and releasing energy. If that energy can be utilised, it will require only tiny amounts of fuel and create virtually no radioactive waste.

Song said that while technological challenges remain immense, the project has been awarded another 6 billion yuan in funding, and new construction plans are under way: “Five years from now, we will start to build our fusion reactor, which will need another 10 years of construction. After that is built we will construct the power generator and start generating power by around 2040,” he said.

China is responsible for manufacturing 9 per cent of ITER’s components, and is playing a major role in core technologies like magnetic containment, as well as the production of components that can withstand temperatures of over 100 million degrees Celsius.

ITER is scheduled to generate first plasma by 2025. A demonstration reactor will then be built, with the aim of creating 500MW of output power from just 50MW of input, a tenfold return on energy.

Despite the critics who say dependable fusion energy is unrealistic, Song said he was confident breakthroughs are being made: “Because we have a lot of technology now, a lot of challenges in plasma physics have been overcome, and I think this will speed up the entire process,” he said.

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