On a peninsula in the sleepy capital of China’s Anhui province, scientists are preparing for their next run of a nuclear fusion test reactor, a space-age device that is on the cutting edge of global efforts to achieve a new clean source of abundant energy.
The reactor, and the enormous research project around it, form a government-backed research endeavour with little hope of producing a commercial product for decades, yet it forms part of an extensive effort by China to be at the the forefront of the next generation of energy
As China struggles to wean itself from heavy industry and clear its fouled air, planners are using their state-led economic model, vast manufacturing industry and market size to achieve global leadership in postfossil-fuel energy. It’s a bid to both ease the country’s dependence on foreign energy and further elevate the position of domestic industries that are already world champions.
“China is absolutely leading the globe in low-carbon energy technologies of the future,” said Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Cleveland.
“They are looking at energy as a sector that’s fundamentally changing. It’s very capital-intensive,” and therefore well suited to China’s investment-heavy approach, at home and abroad. “There’s an opportunity there, while America is busy going inward and isolationist, for China to come out as the ’good guy’ and the world leader.”
While China may also be the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and consumer of fossil fuels, it also the largest builder and installer of solar panels and wind turbines. It has the fastest-expanding nuclear power fleet, and the biggest market for new electric and hybrid vehicles.
In matters of energy, “China will without doubt play a leading future role in the global arena,” said Shi Dinghuan, an independent energy researcher who is former president of the China’s Renewable Energy Society. “The greatest advantage for China in the creation of new energy lies in our social system and political strategy,” Mr. Shi said.
Those advantages come together at EAST, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, a giant sphere surrounded by a massively complex network of pumps and tubes. It’s China’s fusion-energy test reactor, situated inside a building on “science island,” a peninsula jammed with technical institutes once devoted to catching up to the rest of the world, and now committed to surpassing it.
In one respect, that goal has already been accomplished. EAST holds the record for the longest-sustained steady-state high-confinement plasma-fusion reaction, an important achievement as scientists seek to sustain a process that could generate a new source of reliable energy without the pollutant byproducts of fossil fuels or fission nuclear power, the technology involved in disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“The next goal is 400 seconds,” said Wan Baonian, director of the Institute of Plasma Physics, which is under the elite Chinese Academy of Sciences.
It may take another couple of years to achieve that – and six minutes remains vanishingly brief, only one step on a decades-long journey to generating sustained power from synthetic suns.
The “whole world fusion community is interested in our machine,” Mr. Wan says .
For years, global fusion-energy ambitions have been wrapped up in ITER, an international megaproject that has been in the works since 1985, and under construction in southern France since 2010. China is a member of the ITER project.
But it’s also pushing its own next steps in fusion. It has funded the engineering and design of the Chinese Fusion Engineering Test Reactor, CFETR, a process that kicked off several months ago. CFETR is expected to be a bigger machine than ITER, and Mr. Wan points out that the French machine “will not produce any electricity.” China, by contrast, has already made public its ambitions for a further step forward, a demonstration reactor that it hopes will be first to produce electricity from fusion energy, eclipsing the efforts of ITER.
And where international projects have been mired in slow progress ? “ITER always suffers from the politicians,” Mr. Wan says ? fusion development in a deep-pocketed one-party state has a chance to move faster than anywhere else, he says.
China “was the last major country to get active in fusion,” said Steve Dean, an American scientist who is founder of Fusion Power Associates, a U.S.-based research and education foundation. But it has “succeeded in rapidly becoming a major player in the world fusion effort,” he said.
“Costs of building and operating facilities in China are much less than doing similar things in the U..S and Europe and even in Japan. Consequently China has been getting ‘more for their buck’ than we do.”
Increasingly, there are a lot of bucks to go around, too. The International Energy Agency estimates that China’s public spending on energy-related research, through both direct government investment and state-owned enterprises, now matches that of the United States – and is higher as a percentage of gross domestic product. Last year, overall Chinese spending on research and development reached $350-billion, according to official Chinese government statistics.
On science island in Hefei, Mr. Wan acknowledges that fusion research has been the subject of ridicule – an exorbitant science project, critics say, whose results seem perpetually 50 years distant. His response: History has shown that the greatest progress in advancing fusion has come at times of greatest need, such as in the shadow of U.S. energy shortages in the 1970s. That era is over in the United States, which “has shale gas, so they do not need to worry about their energy resources for the next 100 or even 200 years,” he said.
China, by contrast, needs both great volumes of energy and has a keen desire to limit its reliance on foreign sources.
“China is the only country that is really going for it, other countries are just diddling,” said Michel Laberge, founder and chief scientist at General Fusion, a Burnaby, B.C.-based firm whose backers include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. That has global implications.
“Energy is a big deal, if a country gets it, they will have a nice economic, strategic and security advantage as other countries will have to depend on them for their energy,” Mr. Laberge said, citing Europe’s dependence on Russia for natural gas.
Still, he’s not convinced the heavy-spending model in China will prevail. Beijing, of course, is hardly alone in pursuing fusion research – and its program lags other countries in a number of key areas. In addition, Mr. Laberge’s company is among a group of entrepreneurial firms backed by deep-pocketed financiers in the West who are banking on the nimbleness of private industry to eclipse even the machinery of Beijing’s state capital.
“If there is a race, it’s China versus the privates, not China versus other countries,” Mr. Laberge said. And “I think there is a good chance that the privates will beat them to it.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li