Just before the New Year, China set a clean energy record by sustaining a nuclear fusion reaction at 185 million degrees Fahrenheit for more than 17 minutes using its “artificial sun.”
That’s exciting news for humanity’s abundant clean energy future, but if you spent any time on the internet over the past week, you may be forgiven for believing that China has actually launched an artificial sun. Like, into the sky.
A number of images and videos of what looks like a ball of light and gas being launched into the sky made their way through Twitter and YouTube. One video with 5,000 retweets and 12,000 quote-tweets, seemingly captured during the day, features a crowd of onlookers on a beach gasping at the ball ascending into the air, leaving billows of smoke behind it. Another viral video, which appears to take place at night, shows the ball doing the same thing, lighting up the sky along the way. “The moment China launched the artificial sun, as night turned into day,” the caption reads.
Both videos have since been debunked as depicting something entirely different; they look most closely like a video of a Chinese satellite launch a few weeks prior, which also left a billow of smoke in its wake. Even so, that didn’t stop some users from taking advantage of the moment to mock those who fell for the fakes.
“Yeah, I'm in China, this is 100% real,” one user commented sarcastically. “It's winter, so the extra sun has been pretty sweet, little dimmer and more yellow than the old one, but I hear they're working on it.”
Even though these viral videos don’t represent the truth, China’s recent achievement with its “artificial sun” is very real and very exciting. What is it?
What is China’s ‘artificial sun’?
The term “artificial sun” refers specifically to a nuclear fusion reactor—a device that produces electricity from the fusion of the nuclei of hydrogen atoms—that researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Hefei Institutes of Physical Science have been tweaking with the goal of expanding the country’s clean energy options. It’s known formally as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), and has operated for more than a decade, with nearly $1 trillion in investment. EAST is not an ascending ball of energy, and is in fact a huge donut-shaped piece of equipment securely seated on the surface of the Earth by the forces of gravity.
EAST is located in Heifei, China, and is part of the larger International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which is based in France and includes 35 countries’ participation. EAST is best understood as a testing ground for experiments that feed into ITER’s eventual goal of creating a sustained thermonuclear reaction by 2035. So, China’s success with EAST is actually a win for the entire world.
In reaching record temperatures on EAST, China smashed a record previously set by France in 2003, and its own latest record, in June, running at 216 million degrees Fahrenheit for 101 seconds. Both milestones represent temperatures that are many, many times greater than that of the real sun, which is around 27 million degrees Fahrenheit at its core.
“This time, steady-state plasma operation was sustained for 1,056 seconds at a temperature close to 70 million degrees Celsius, laying a solid scientific and experimental foundation toward the running of a fusion reactor," said Gong Xianzu, a researcher at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ASIPP) in a Jan. 2 press release.
Why do we need an ‘artificial sun’?
China’s actual “artificial sun” is not intended to be a source of light, nor a source of heat, but rather, a source of energy—and it is not designed to be launched into the sun, but to live safely in a facility that can withstand its high temperatures as a byproduct of its operation.
The development of nuclear fusion energy represents a real milestone in clean energy. By fusing hydrogen atoms under high pressure to convert them into helium, scientists recreate the process taking place at the core of the sun, the same process by which stars burn.
In a nuclear reactor, this occurs within coils of plasma—a superheated state of matter, often referred to as the fourth state of matter outside liquid, solid and gas—that reach temperatures that are difficult to achieve without any leakage. Scientists have been working toward this for decades; EAST’s milestone is a big one, just not in the way that much of the internet seems to think.
Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear fusion relies upon hydrogen atoms that are abundant in the ocean. It creates an unbelievable amount of energy, without carbon emissions. The nations of the world are collaborating and throwing tons of money at the project because of how fundamentally fusion energy would change the basic calculus of living on planet Earth.
The creation of such a generous source of green energy would be a huge win for the world in the global transition away from polluting sources of energy, so there’s no need to look up at the sky with fear over any “artificial sun.”