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International nuclear fusion development points to importance of collaboration

Last month, the United Kingdom began the search to find a site for the country's first nuclear fusion reactor. Even in the midst of a grim COVID-19 situation, the country's eyes are still firmly set on securing sustainable energy for the coming century, with plans for it to operate as early as 2040.

The race is on. Fusion reactors are the subject of global interest and collaboration, and in the same month as Britain began its search, China successfully powered up its own first experimental nuclear fusion reactor. A great advance for the country's self-sufficiency and sustainability, the HL-2M Tokamak reactor in Sichuan is one of the most advanced fusion research devices in the world.

Seen as the holy grail of the energy industry, fusion could end increasing concern over climate change and dwindling fossil fuel resources in one go. Instead of the well-versed conventional nuclear fission route many countries have taken, which involves heavy elements such as uranium breaking down, fusion is less cumbersome.

Traditional fission produces dangerous radiation particles as unwanted gifts for our fragile natural world. Notorious accidents such as Chenobyl in Russia, and Three Mile Island in the United States, are well within living memory. Fusion instead proves to be a seductive achievement for many reasons.

Harnessing the power of the sun by colliding together two atoms instead of breaking one down theoretically could not possibly produce the same dangerous radioactive waste. The amount of energy created could, in theory, also be gargantuan compared to fission, and have a near-inexhaustible fuel supply.

China's Tokamak experimental reactor is an important step toward this goal. Tokamak reactors utilize powerful magnetic fields to confine hot plasma, achieving other-worldly temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the core of the sun, to ensure fusion of atoms occurs.

However, the process is fraught with engineering difficulties, as well as being energy-intensive, and so far no fusion reactor has managed to produce a positive output of energy that is commercially viable.

International collaboration on such a worthy venture is crucial. The Chinese scientists responsible for the Tokamak achievement last month plan to use the device to contribute toward global efforts.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is the world's largest fusion project. Based in France, it is expected to be completed by 2025, and will be a major step forward for commercially available fusion energy. The hurdles overcome and lessons learned from China's Tokamak will no doubt help the crucial final steps in this multinational effort.

A world where energy is cheap, easily accessible and near unlimited, is a future worth collaborating for. Individual nation technological races have been commonplace in the last few years, however to truly take a significant step forward for humanity, global cooperation must be sustained in the face of breaking down the secrets of uncharted science.

Fusion is just one example of how positive our world could look in a century's time. Artificial Intelligence, stem cell therapies and space exploration are glimpses of bountiful times ahead.

Even in the present, such transnational collaboration is key. Access to data platforms for scientists around the world has proven pivotal in tracking COVID-19 cases, locating mutated variants, and in developing a vaccine. International collaboration allows researchers to gain new perspectives, often from specific areas of knowledge alien to them, and build and deepen relationships with colleagues in similar fields from other countries. It is well documented that homogenous teams, while having fewer quarrels and smoother discussions, tend to make fewer discoveries than diverse group-led projects.

The saying goes that great minds think alike; however it may be a case of just thinking together in the first place, in order to create the breakthroughs humanity requires.

Source: China Daily