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CHINESE ARTIFICIAL SUN IN CORRECT PERSPECTIVE by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

 

Recently an article appeared with the headline China Turns On Nuclear-Powered ‘Artificial Sun’ . It describes how China has successfully powered up its “artificial sun” nuclear fusion reactor for the first time. It is reported as China’s largest and most advanced nuclear fusion experimental research device. The article makes it appears as if China has broken through and is powering ahead  technologically. All part of the ‘Halo’ being created through Chinese public opinion and influence operations. There is no denying the fact that the effort is a significant  technological advancement. However, this effort is a part of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)project based in France. 

 

Fusion energy must be seen and understood in the larger context of global energy requirement and security. Fusion energy is also relevant to India. It also has a connection with space exploration. It is futuristic. From a military and security point of view there is a need to understand the deeper implications of space and nuclear energy. I have written a detailed article on India’s Energy Security Through Space for the ARTRAC journal and is awaiting publication. This article is an extracted subset of that article to dispel views that the Chinese effort is not a standalone and runaway one. We should not be in awe of what the Chinese are doing. Further, let me state that India is an important  player in this field. In this article I have explained the basics including the connect between Nuclear Fusion and Space exploration. I have endeavoured to put across issues in as simple a manner as possible for a layman to understand. So let us start with Do Rae Me…  

 

Energy 

 

Basic Requirement. Energy is fundamental to humanity. If population grows as estimated, global energy requirement is estimated to double by 2100. Even if the population growth is conservative, energy requirements will still grow  by 25-30%[1] (see fig 1 ).  However the availability of energy and other resources will start decreasing. It is estimated that the availability of the current energy mix will peak round 2035[2]. Thereafter availability of fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro power energy  will decrease due to resource depletion. Humanity must start looking at alternate sources of energy. 


 

Fig 1 – World Energy Consumption

Climate Change and Global Warming. Continued dependence  on fossil fuels will accelerate global warming and its adverse effects  will kick in. These include,  rising sea levels and reduced land[3], water scarcity[4], hurricanes , floods , storms, drought, change in crop patterns and eco systems. Most importantly climate change and growth induced pollution will result in widespread diseases and health issues. Hence we have no option but to look at space for energy in the long run. So far no rocket science! 


Space Dependent Energy Options 


Space offers two direct and some indirect routes to harness energy. The first option is space based solar power. The second option is mining Helium-3 from space and using it in a nuclear fusion process to produce energy. Water is the oil of space. Hence, the next option is to mine space for water. Water , in turn will enable and sustain other direct options in space.  Another indirect option is to mine Asteroids / Moon / Mars surface  for rare earths which enable better/ superconductivity so the energy consumption is reduced. However in this article I will  restrict  myself to Fusion Energy and explain to readers that the ‘artificial sun’is not Chinese alone. 

    

Helium-3 – Deuterium Fusion Energy


Helium Basics.  Helium is the second-most common element universally but is scarce on earth. Helium is needed in applications from  space exploration to quantum computing.  Helium is a non-renewable resource[5]. USA, Algeria,  Qatar and Tanzania are the only producers of Helium[6] on Earth. For once, it is not available in China! Thank god for minor mercies. 


Helium-3. The most common isotope is  Helium-4. It has two neutrons and two protons. It is stable. However the interesting isotope is Helium-3.  It is non-radioactive and  has two neutrons and one proton[7]. It can be made artificially but  it is a very rare element and very very costly. In total, 0.01 metric tons of Helium-3 exist on Earth. Helium-3 has rare and valuable properties. Helium-3 is however most sought after for fusion[8]. It has the potential to solve our energy crisis in future.

 

Nuclear Power Plants Basics. Nuclear power plants use a nuclear fission reaction ( see fig 2) to produce heat. This is used to turn water into steam which drives a turbine to produce electricity[9] (see fig 3 ). Current nuclear power plants have fission reactors in which uranium nuclei are split apart[10]. This releases energy but also  radioactivity. The spent nuclear fuel has radioactive waste which is hazardous. It needs to be stored safely[11]. Very importantly fission rectors can lead to catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. We need a safe alternative to Fission Based Reactors. 



                        

Figure 2- Fission Reaction

   


                                                                                                               Figure 3 – Nuclear Power Station

 

Fusion. Fusion occurs when the nuclei of two atoms are forcibly driven together to fuse with each other. In the process of fusing,  tremendous energy is released.  Fusion reactions generate huge amounts of energy as compared to fission. If the reaction can be controlled  it has the potential to generate unlimited electricity with virtually zero carbon emissions. The normal fusion is of two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium. The product of the reaction is a helium ion and a fast-moving neutron (see fig 4)[12]. Most fusion research to date has followed this path. This is the fundamental theory of a fusion or a hydrogen bomb.



                   

                                            Figure 4 – Fusion Reaction

 

Helium-3 – Deuterium Fusion. Nuclear fusion is complex. It is difficult to capture what are known as “fast” neutrons that are released from a fusion reaction. These are uncontrollable and lead to energy waste. That is why hydrogen bombs are more devastating than normal atom bombs. On the other hand Helium-3  has one neutron which is slow moving and controllable. The fusion of  Helium-3 and Deuterium can fuel fusion reactors. Their  fusion creates normal Helium and a proton, which wastes less energy and is easier to contain (see fig 5). Nuclear fusion reactors using Helium-3 could therefore provide a highly efficient form of nuclear power with virtually no waste and no radiation[13]. It could be a perfect fuel for fusion. However the reality check[14] on Helium-3 fusion is that it is under development. There  are large fusion projects like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) that have made considerable progress [15]. The Chinese ‘artificial sun’ is part of that project. Optimistically fusion reactors  could go commercial in about five-ten  years. It brings us to the next problem. Where are Helium-3 and Deuterium available? In space!

 

             


        Figure 5-  Helium-3 Deuterium fusion

 Helium 3 In Space It is estimated that there are one million  tons of Helium-3[16] embedded in the   top surface layer of Moon soil due to constant bombardment by solar winds. Its concentration is  however very low.  Enormous quantities of Moon soil has to be processed by heating it at 600 °C (1,112 F). A permanent Moon base must be established and industrial-scale Helium-3 production has to be set up. It is estimated that  25 tonnes of Helium-3 (a fully-loaded Space Shuttle cargo bay) could power the United States for a year.[17] In comparison India’s annual energy requirement  will be about 50% of this. The actual requirement could further reduce after discounting Earth based solar, wind and nuclear capacities. 

 

Deuterium. The other material needed for  fusion reactors is Deuterium. Currently Deuterium, occurs as 166 out of every million hydrogen atoms on Earth. However in Mars it comprises 833 out of every million Hydrogen atoms on Mars. Deuterium is very expensive even in today’s pre-fusion economy. Once fusion reactors go into widespread use, Deuterium availability will go down and prices will further increase. Hence humanity will have to go to Mars for Deuterium. However to run a Mars settlement, water electrolysis is mandatory.  As a by-product adequate deuterium is expected to be produced.

 

Space Travel Volumes. Overall to ensure future energy security we need to go repeatedly to moon, from there go to Mars, set up production facilities, run them continuously, stay in moon and/or mars, use rare earth materials which consumes less energy and send back raw material to Earth. Hence there will be constant space travel to and from moon, space and deep outer space. Further,  we need to look at three issues. Using Hydrogen to propel space travel. Using Hydrogen based fuel cells for storing energy. Lastly obtain rare earth and other precious metals from space. So it is not one technology but a fusion of multiple technologies which will provide us the answer. A long way to go. However it is only countries with a proven space capability that can think of space based energy. 

 

    Space Capabilities. The international space capability is as under :- 

 

USA, China,  Russia, Japan, United Kingdom, India, Canada, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Israel have advanced space programs. 

 

Missions to the Moon have been conducted by  the Soviet Union, USA , Japan, the European Space Agency, China, India, Luxembourg, and Israel.

 

USA, China and the former Soviet Union are the only nations to perform a soft landing on the lunar surface. India and Israel have had failed attempts.

 

There have been eight successful Mars landings by USA. [18]  The last Mars landing was done by USA in 2018. The only other country to land a spacecraft on Mars was the Soviet Union in 1971 and 1973.USA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and India have successfully sent spacecraft to enter Mars’ orbit[19].

 

Summary

 

In summation it is evident that only countries with advanced Nuclear and Space capabilities can think of Fusion energy. Realistically, the countries which can even dream of this form of energy are USA, EU, China, Russia and India. Evidently, USA is at the pole position in this game in every respect. China is a major player and will leverage Russian technology and experience. India with its Gaganyan and Mangalyan programs is very much up there. There is lot of logic in manned space missions. Our advanced  space and nuclear programs in combination put us in the big league. Some day we will have our own artificial sun.   

 


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3 responses to “CHINESE ARTIFICIAL SUN IN CORRECT PERSPECTIVE by Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. great learning by reading this article full of knowledge explicitly conveyed sir

  2. Excellent piece. Congratulations

  3. An in-depth article on future of fusion technologies. It is a matter of great pride that India is taking giant strides to be counted among the world leaders in this domain as well. China beware, we will surprise and stun you with the very weapons and technologies that you thought were your sole preserve.Harbhajnik

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