Fusion: a pipe dream for China’s energy craving?
China has long relied on coal and fossil fuel to provide for its energy needs, with severe environmental and social consequences. Coal alone accounts for roughly 79% of the electricity generated in China. The runoff from coal mining, emissions from power plants, and waste from coal electricity generation are all creating enormous ecological and environmental problems for China. Harbin’s coal-fired heating systems, recently ramped up for the winter months, gathered international attention after the visibility in the city was reduced to less than 20 meters by the smog. This is only one example of the serious challenges produced by China’s coal-intensive approach to meeting its demand for energy.
While the Chinese government recognizes the complications, there are simply few alternatives available that will satisfy China’s seemingly endless energy needs. China’s experience is by no means unique. London was known for its coal-driven smog during its industrialization, as were many other major cities. However, the scale and intensity of China’s environmental concerns surpass anything experienced by developing countries in the past. In an attempt to diversify its energy portfolio, China has turned to nuclear power. While nuclear fission produces radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel rods, there is another less well-known alternative: nuclear fusion.
At first glance, nuclear fusion seems to be a perfect solution. First, it generates no radioactive waste except for its inner casing, and even that will only remain radioactive for a couple hundred years; by comparison, nuclear fission waste remains radioactive for millennia. Second, fusion has no risk of creating a runaway nuclear chain reaction the way fission power plants do. Third, and most importantly, it uses deuterium, which is naturally present in small amounts in water in the form of D2O, commonly known as heavy water. In other words, a major fuel source for fusion is plentiful. The problem with fusion is simple: we can’t currently achieve it sustainably. The principle is simple: build a box to contain the sun and harness its energy. Unfortunately, scientists currently lack the know-how to actually build such a box.
There are two major methods of containment that are relatively well researched. The first is a type of magnetic containment device, the Tokomak, which was invented in the 1950s by Soviet physicists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov. Tokomak used a magnetic field to confine plasma fuel in the shape of a torus. The second type is called Inertial Confinement Fusion, which attempts to use a high energy laser to compress and heat a tiny fuel pellet until it reaches fusion. Both methods have so far failed to achieve sustainable fusion, i.e. fusion that can produce enough energy to sustain its energy inputs. Both approaches are also encountering numerous unforeseen problems.
The Chinese government has been investing heavily into the search for nuclear fusion energy for decades, with little progress to show for it. China has paid for around 9% of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a eighteen billion-dollar multinational joint research and engineering project designed to build the world’s largest Tokomak reactor. China also has its own version of Tokomak, called the EAST, housed in Hefei, China. It is designed as a proof of concept and test bed of parts to be used in the ITER project. Nonetheless, despite decades of research by many countries, the maximum Q factor (a factor of energy output and energy required for its confinement) that has been achieved is 1.25. A self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction will require a Q factor of 5.
Does this mean China should stop its efforts? Absolutely not. China currently possesses no credible existing alternative to fossil fuels. While nuclear fusion is likely some ways off and the future is uncertain, fusion may nonetheless hold the key to a cleaner energy future for the world’s largest country. That’s a prospect worth investing in.