China Aims to Have Nuclear Fusion Energy in Six Years With New 'Mega Lab'

A "mega-lab" that will aim to generate nuclear fusion power within just six years has been approved by the Chinese government.

Once it's operational, the machine will generate 50 million amps of electricity, which is about twice as much as the Z Pulsed Power Facility operated by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico—the current record-holder for a machine of its type.

China's plans were set out by Peng Xianjue, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics and one of the country's top nuclear weapons experts, in an online meeting organized by the Techxcope think tank on September 9.

According to his presentation, as reported by the South China Morning Post, Chinese researchers will try to create a fusion reaction by using an incredibly strong electric charge to ignite two types of hydrogen isotopes—deuterium and tritium.

Atom and flag of China
Left: A stock illustration depicts an atom. Right: A stock image of the flag of China waving against the sky. Nuclear fusion involves joining atomic nuclei together to generate energy, and China aims to do so with a new reactor by 2028. aleksandarnakovski/Toa55/Getty

The intense energy and pressure released by the charge will fuse the atomic nuclei together, releasing further energy that will then be harnessed to produce power for the grid.

In the meeting, Peng said: "Fusion ignition is the jewel in the crown of science and technology in today's world."

Scientists around the world have been trying to develop a functioning nuclear fusion power plant for decades. Though fusion has been achieved in the lab, no-one has yet managed to generate more electricity from fusion reactions than the electricity needed to produce the reaction in the first place.

Fusion involves forcing atomic nuclei to join together under intense conditions, creating a heavier nucleus than before. The mass of the heavier nucleus is not quite as heavy as the two nuclei were before they joined, and this leftover weight is transformed into energy.

If scientists can overcome the hurdles, fusion promises to be a clean, powerful, and abundant source of energy.

There are many approaches to fusion, including magnetic confinement and powerful lasers. One approach involves a reactor called a Z pinch machine, which uses an electrical current inside a hot gas known as plasma to generate a magnetic field. This magnetic field then compresses—pinches—the plasma to create the conditions necessary for fusion.

For years, Z pinch machines were used to simulate the effects of nuclear weapons. Now, there are parallels between that research and the potential energy applications of fusion.

China's reactor, known as Z-FFR, will be based in a "mega lab" according to the South China Morning Post. It's due to be built by 2025 in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan. It may then produce power as soon as 2028 before becoming commercially operational by 2035, according to a reported estimate by Peng's team.

There will be downsides to the approach, however. For one, it will need several high-performance power capacitors and a reaction chamber that can cope with the strain of thousands of explosive electric shocks each day, once every ten seconds or so.

China's approach will also be a sort of mixture between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. Instead of the power produced from the fusion reactor going straight to the grid, it will power a flow of particles that will hit some uranium and generate a fission reaction—in which nuclei are split apart rather than being joined together.

China's goals of generating power by 2028 and commercialization by 2035 are on the optimistic side of the general consensus that commercial fusion power is at least a decade or two away.