China's Artificial Sun: A Modern Flip of the Myth of Icarus

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Over two millennia ago, Apollodorus, a Greek poet, composed the myth of Icarus, one of the most compelling allegorical narratives the world has ever known. Son to Daedalus, a man trapped in his own labyrinth by King Minos of Crete, Icarus is gifted a set of wings made of feather and wax, to make his escape. “Don’t fly too close to the sun”, his father warns him. Icarus, however, does not listen, and, overtaken with the euphoria of flight, rises towards the sun’s heat with too much haste. The wax melts, the wings collapse, and Icarus finds his solemn end in the waters of the Mediterranean basin. The story has been told, unchanged, for millennia now. Yet, recent technological developments in China, a land that held much mystery for the Ancient Greeks, promise to flip the script on the age-old tale: instead of flying towards the sun, we’re now trying to bring the sun closer to our own existential plane.

The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), a nuclear fission laboratory in Hefein, China has, in fact, been working to recreate an energy source on our planet that can rival that of our closest star. To do that, however, we must first understand exactly how the sun that’s been gazed upon by every organism in earth’s history manages to release the energy we so deeply cherish. 

Our sun generates energy by means of nuclear fusion. What that means is that, at its core, the sun is able to fuse together certain atoms into new ones. When that happens, a lot of energy is released, it is radiated from the core of the sun, and travels throughout the solar system to reach its planets, and us, in the form of fundamental, invigorating heat. That’s why, for years, now, scientists have been trying to recreate the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion. If we could manage to recreate the processes by which the sun “creates” its energy, here on earth, it might represent a means to a novel, clean, and constant supply of energy. 

It has to be said that, for over half a century now, we’ve had the ability to engage in nuclear fission, the opposite of nuclear fusion, which occurs when the nucleus of an atom is, instead of joined with another, split in a massive chain reaction. This, like the union of two atomic nuclei infusion, releases spectacularly large amounts of energy. Humanity has taken many steps to harness this energy: this is the activity of nuclear power plants, and the technology at the core of all nuclear weapons. The difference, however, in terms of energy quality, is that nuclear fission is riddled by the release of highly hazardous radioactive waste. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, has no such harmful byproducts, and represents, to an extent, the conceptual horizon scientists have hoped to move towards for decades. 

In a recent development, the EAST laboratory has announced that its reactor has successfully achieved temperatures over 100 million degrees Celsius. At this temperature, which is just about 6 times hotter than the inside of our system’s brightest start, the hydrogen atoms that are injected in the reactor form a plasma that, in theory, can be compressed using magnets. When this compression occurs, and the temperatures remain so elevated, the conditions begin to truly mimic those of the sun, and fusion begins to occur. EAST was able to produce these conditions for about 10 seconds, shattering all previous records and establishing itself, for a few seconds, as the hottest center in our own solar system. In doing that, EAST managed to reach an output of 10,000,000 Watts, enough to power two hundred thousand light bulbs. 

The issue, of course, is that, for the time being, the practice remains unsustainable. That is to say, the energy spent in creating those conditions is greater than that released. The conditions for sustainable fusion technology, then, are still far away. In order to sustain the practice in time, the temperature would have to reach “hundreds of millions of degrees, while the pulse must lengthen to thousands of seconds”, said Zhang Tiankan, a Chinese science journalist who first broke the news of the developments for Xinhua.

Without a doubt, then, we are still far away from having fusion technology that is self-sustainable, and which can provide a sensible way towards clean energy. And yet, the creation of what is being dubbed “China’s Artificial Sun”, represents a fundamental milestone in humanity’s movement towards clean, self-sustainable energy sources, as explained in the video below. Multiple laboratories and startups, scattered across the globe, are, in unison, developing the technologies necessary to perfect the process described above, and reach the targets necessary for sustained nuclear fusion. As such, Christofer Mowry, executive at General Fusion, declared to the BBC that, “fusion is longer than 30 years away.”

If that were the case, the environmental, societal and political consequences would run incredibly deep, indeed touching at the core of our own global fabric. Achieving sustainable nuclear fusion, and efficiently deriving its energy, would, at least in theory, provide the earth with what seems like the most viable solution to the majority of our environmental woes. As such, the adoption of a new, clean, energy source, would mean moving our efforts towards general amelioration of the symptoms already at play. Our environmental efforts would move, then, towards “cleaning up the mess we’ve made”, rather than searching for ways to move past. Though, of course, many obstacles such as scaling the device towards commercial viability remain in the way, the recent developments at EAST provide a slither of hope that, within the next half century, our worries might have optimistically shifted past the search for clean energy, and only towards a general clean-up. 

Instead of flying too close to the sun, then, humanity’s movement seems to have flipped, in an attempt to bring the sun closer to us. What’s strange, two millennia after Apollodorus’ narration, is that we, as a species, risk to repeat Icarus’ macabre fate if we don’t succeed in bringing the powerful energy down to our own plane. Certainly, having taken the first, groundbreaking steps towards recreating the sun’s energy on our own planet represents for us a tool that, like Icarus’ wings, must excite us on the one hand, but which we must deeply understand (and even be wary of) on the other.