China aims to build first prototype fusion power plant by 2035

In the last days of the past year, two superstructures were created in China to accelerate progress towards the practical use of nuclear fusion energy. It's not so much about science, but about commercial solutions for the near future. If work schedules are met, a prototype of an industrial fusion reactor will begin operating in China by 2035, and by 2050 fusion power plants will be built throughout the country.

Image source: China National Nuclear Corporation

In China, on December 29, 2023, a ceremony was held to establish the state-owned company China Fusion Energy Inc.. It will consolidate research and development in the field of fusion energy in China, which was previously distributed among research institutes and private firms. Simultaneously with this structure, a consortium of 25 organizations was created, led by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). The consortium will solve a number of fundamental problems that hinder the practical development of thermonuclear fusion energy.

The creation of such powerful organizations and the transfer into their hands of all previously scattered resources makes it clear that the central authorities of China consider the transition to thermonuclear energy to be key in industry and the economy.. A corresponding fund was also created to resolve financial issues.. The consortium participants included not only specialized scientific organizations, but also such state companies as China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation and State Grid Corporation of China. To understand the scale of the efforts, it is approximately as if, under the auspices of Rosatom, RAO UES and Rostec also began to deal with thermonuclear issues.

According to information released by CNNC about the meeting, the 13 members of the fledgling consortium were tasked with solving the first set of 10 problems, which address issues such as high-temperature superconducting magnets, materials for fusion reactors and high-performance energy storage devices.. As a first approximation, in terms of plans for new structures, China intends to build an industrial prototype fusion reactor by 2035 and introduce the technology for large-scale commercial use by 2050.

The main scientific and experimental background will be provided by two scientific organizations in China: the Southwest Institute of Physics (SWIP), located in the city of Chengdu in southwest China, and the Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Anhui Province.

China was the last to join the race for fusion energy, but it is quickly catching up.. Thus, from 2011 to 2022, China filed more patents in the field of thermonuclear fusion than any other country.

In the summer of 2023, the HL-2A fusion reactor generated plasma with a current of more than 1 million amperes for the first time in enhanced confinement mode, and the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), developed by the Institute of Plasma Physics in Hefei (Anhui Province), became the world's first fully superconducting tokamak. At the end of 2021, it became the first of its kind, capable of operating with a pulse duration of 1056 seconds. There are other achievements that allow Chinese scientists to hope to be the first in the world to master practical thermonuclear fusion — to light an “artificial Sun” on Earth.