Sunday, January 02, 2022

1056 seconds of Chinese fusion

Willie S. sent me an encouraging article in the Chinese media
China's 'artificial sun' smashes 1000-second fusion world record
that was published on the last day of 2021. A new dramatic improvement was achieved in one parameter, the duration, at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST, an acronym that is slowly getting hotter than the WEST again) in Hefei, China. Many of us, sinologists, call the device simply 先进实验超导托卡马克实验装置. The advantage is that you may write the name of the experiment four times a second (at least with the help of Ctrl/V).

The previous record achieved in this facility in 2021 was over 100 seconds, now they added another order of magnitude, to stand above 1,000 seconds. They have reached the last one among the three dreams (or three communist party's plans), 1,000 seconds, 100 million kelvins, and 1 million amperes of current. Their next plan is to reach these three impressive values in one run simultaneously.

1,056 seconds sounds like a really long time. It is 17 minutes and 36 seconds. If you manage to play with the ball for 1,056 seconds, you must have largely mastered the art and you probably stop because you're bored, not because it's really impossible for you to prevent a mistake. Alternatively, there may be some X-sigma deviations from the safe conditions and they are bound to happen but by improving the accuracy etc., the linear growth in X is possible and may translate to a quasi-exponential growth in the longevity. Rather soon, the longevity may become large enough so that it becomes economically fine to "rebuild the damaged part of the device" and run the fusion in between.

The gadget is a tokamak which is a Russian technology. It stands either for a "toroidaľnaja kamera s magnítnymi katůškami" (toroidal chamber with magnetic coils) or for "toroidaľnaja kamera s aksiáľnym magnítnym polěm" (toroidal chamber with axial magnetic field). The magnetic field \(\vec B\) goes along the large ring but the plasma goes through a "wire" that is wound on that large ring, and therefore the magnetic field is axial (being the "axis" of the finer screw). That "axial" geometry makes the plasma naturally bend inside the "wires", just like at the LHC. (As a kid, I invented the hierarchy of coils, coils on coils, coils on coils on coils etc., and called them the perplantines of N-th order.)

Like the LHC, the tokamak solution seems like the common sense "Big Science" solution to the problem (how to confine the hot plasma that you don't want to hold in your hands) and I would still bet that the first usable fusion reactor will be a tokamak, just like the newest fundamental particle (the Higgs) was discovered at a synchrotron (the LHC) and that's the device where I expect supersymmetry to be found first, too. I am not particularly certain that the other solutions (like NIF, with some great PR in 2021 as well) are bad, they have many great ideas (the strong lasers etc.) but there is a non-scientific motivation behind all of them. I think that all the non-LHC (non-SSC) and non-tokamak solutions are partly driven by the desire to save lots of money during the research. There often exist cheap solutions but if you have the extra constraints that the solution must be cheap, the problem simply does become harder.

It's great that China may still afford to do the old-fashioned Big Science. Needless to say, if they manage to develop a workable fusion power plant, this investment will be repaid handsomely. In the recent epoch, various Chinese companies sometimes succeed in this and that, they make a good cell phone, a good car or train, whatever (and of course, China is leading the production of most things that made Europe "high tech" in the 19th century), but the fusion power plant would be the first truly groundbreaking advance coming from the Asian superpower. Only at that moment, they would cease to be "mere followers" of the West. I am not sure whether they would gradually allow the rest of the world to copy the technology.

With fusion power plants, electricity would become so cheap that people could think about insane projects, indeed. Any dream that looked economically infeasible because of the electricity price could become realistic. Any solution (e.g. energy storage) that was rejected because of a tiny efficacy (like below 10%) would become worth consideration because even with 90% of extra losses, the energy from fusion could be cheap enough. People should do certain fixes, e.g. pump lots of distilled ocean water to the Aral Sea and Sahara, among others LOL.

So while I would be annoyed that a Chinese EAST is apparently surpassing the French ITER, it may still be good for mankind (unless China abuses it for erasing all Western pillars of the civilization which would be worse than the benefits of fusion!) that such improvements are taking place somewhere.

Colors relevant for Germany, from the top: Solar and wind (yellow, grey-green); water pump storage (blue, sometimes); gas, black coal, brown coal (yellow, near black, light brown); nuclear, biomass, rivers (red, green, blue).

Somewhat related: I found an amazing website with Energy Charts, the production of electricty at each moment since 2010 in most European and some other countries (choose in the upper right corner, along with the language of the Munich Group, either Hitler or Mussolini or Daladier or Chamberlain and the period), shown according to the type of the source. Indeed, you may see that Germany that used to have 18 GW from nuclear energy (a red strip near the bottom) a decade ago only preserved 7-8 GW during 2021 but that dropped towards 3 GW now, less than Czechia (that remainder will be killed in a year)! That drop by 4 GW is really a 5% decrease of the supply in Germany. In isolated conditions, this new 5% mismatch of supply and demand should translate to the 50% of the spot price!

Thankfully, the European Commission is planning to classify nuclear energy (and gas...) as "green investments". As I immediately predicted, that EC plan ignited a hissy fit by the German Luddite ministers. According to Germany's politicians, nuclear physics is an evil Jewish pseudoscience and the only politically correct gas is Zyklon B. Unsurprisingly, Austria joined Germany and launched a pißing contest. Austria will sue the EC even more so than Germany, we were reminded, after all, it is Austria which hosts the real birth place of Hitler. Disagreements about these elementary things show how utterly crazy it is to try to integrate the EU member states.

Another technological advance of the recent weeks is the mind reading. For example, a 62-year-old Australian man who suffers from Hawking's disease wrote a tweet just by thinking about it. The spectrum of tasks that could become possible, much faster, or much more effective if you could directly control technology or artificial "muscles" instead of your muscles would be amazing. This man's Australian brain implant is called Stentrode.

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