The solution to our energy problems isn’t beneath our feet — fossil fuels must someday go the way of their creators — it’s above our heads. Our “holy grail” of energy will imitate the Sun and harness some kind of nuclear fusion. A sustained fusion reaction could theoretically produce unlimited energy without the harmful byproducts that current nuclear fission reactors generate. This week, Chinese scientists have announced that they’ve made a huge step towards a fusion reactor by producing a plasma hotter than the core of the Sun for almost two minutes.
Hot (literally) on the heels of German scientists announcing that they produced a million-degree Celsius plasma for a tenth of a second last December, the Chinese scientists from the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei, Jiangsu province, are claiming that they have created and sustained a 50-million degree Celsius hydrogen plasma for 102 seconds. Although this temperature is three times hotter than the interior of the Sun, it wasn’t the scientists’ goal. They were aiming for 100-million degrees and 17 minutes. But a machine that could handle that kind of energy is years out, the scientists estimate.
The record plasma was created in the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (example above), a doughnut-shaped containment device that uses extremely powerful fields from superconducting magnets and serious jolts of electrical current to create and contain hydrogen plasma — a fog of hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons.
Plasma by itself doesn’t mean free energy however. To truly recreate the conditions inside of stars, themselves powered by nuclear fusion, that plasma has to be so hot and so squished together that the atoms inside can’t repel each other any longer. The atoms fuse and some of their mass is converted directly into energy, just as Einstein made famous with E=mc^2. Even a small amount of fusible fuel — a gram of hydrogen — could match the energy output of an entire coal-based power plant.
A fusion plant design to take over our existing fission reactors is likely decades away, say the scientists. However, the result from China does represent significant improvement. (It should be noted that no peer-reviewed study accompanies China’s claim, so we don’t yet have full verification.) It’s a step towards a new future for clean energy…and maybe lightsabers.
According to Star Wars lore, a lightsaber is a looped blade of plasma confined by magnetic fields…and maybe a bit of the Force. The Tokamak’s design is about as close as you can get to that with existing technology. It corrals plasma in magnetic fields that twist around it in a helical pattern — like the shape that defines DNA. If you scaled a Tokamak way down, exposed its internal chamber, and gave it a hilt, you’d effectively have a more civilized weapon for a more civilized age! Oh, and this fusion announcement is pretty cool too we guess.
IMAGE: Chinese Academy of Sciences
And while you’re here, watch how Kylo Ren’s lightsaber works: