China is ramping up the development of an "artificial sun", a project spearheaded by a collaboration of state-owned enterprises and privately funded startups. This initiative represents a significant stride in the field of controlled nuclear fusion, aiming to replicate the energy generation process of the sun.
At a recent conference, 25 state-owned enterprises, scientific research institutes, and universities, including the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), formed an alliance called the Controlled Nuclear Fusion Innovation Consortium. The new entity is tasked to laying a solid foundation for the development of the controlled nuclear fusion industry in China.
Since 2023, China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission has initiated the Future Industry Take-off Action, clearly identifying controlled nuclear fusion as one direction for future clean energy.
Led by the CNNC, the Controlled Nuclear Fusion Innovation Consortium will conduct research and development of key technologies, plan out various scenarios, and lead major engineering projects. It has established a specialized company for developing controlled nuclear fusion.
At the same time, numerous privately-funded startups are actively translating theories into practical applications in this field. Among them, Startorus Fusion, is gearing up to heat a large spherical device located outside Xi’an city to an internal temperature of 17 million degrees Celsius by the first quarter of 2025, as reported by Chinese media. This ambitious goal aims to exceed the sun’s core temperature, which is around 15 million degrees Celsius.
Established in 2021, Startorus Fusion has received over 600 million yuan in venture capital from investors including Shunwei Capital, Sequoia Seed Fund, and Lenovo Star to commercialize controlled nuclear fusion technology for power generation at a target timeline of around 2032.
There are many other privately-funded startups doing similar explorations in places like Shanghai, Hefei, and Langfang in Hebei across China, reflecting China’s ambitions in this field.
China is a participant in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, a large-scale scientific initiative aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy.
In August 2023, China’s HL-3 successfully achieved a high-confinement operation mode under a plasma current of 1 million amperes, representing a major step forward in controlled nuclear fusion research.
Nuclear fusion is the process where two light atomic nuclei combine to form a new, heavier nucleus, releasing a tremendous amount of energy in the process. The sun generates its continuous energy through nuclear fusion, and controlled nuclear fusion is referred to as an ‘artificial sun.’
Currently, there are three main technological approaches to controlled nuclear fusion: magnetic confinement, gravitational confinement, and inertial confinement. The mainstream Tokamak device belongs to magnetic confinement, and the international mainstream uses isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium, as nuclear fusion fuel.
Looking at nuclear fusion fuel, deuterium is abundantly available in the oceans, and tritium can be produced from the earth’s lithium resources. At the same time, nuclear fusion can yield a tremendous amount of energy from a small amount of fuel. The energy obtained from the fusion of 1 gram of deuterium-tritium fuel is equivalent to burning 8 tons of coal.
The existing nuclear power plants use nuclear fission to generate energy. Although nuclear fusion and fission differ by only one character in their names, fusion has enormous advantages over fission.
If the containment in a controlled nuclear fusion reactor fails, the unstable plasma will cool down in a very short time, preventing a nuclear disaster.
The main products of deuterium-tritium controlled nuclear fusion are neutrons and the inert element helium, which, unlike coal, oil, and other fossil fuels, do not produce large amounts of carbon dioxide causing the greenhouse effect, nor do they generate long-lived radioactive waste like nuclear fission.