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The Artificial Sun of South Korea: The KSTAR Project

Technology - May 28, 2024

The “Artificial Sun” of South Korea commonly refers to the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) reactor. This experimental reactor is designed to replicate the nuclear fusion processes occurring in the Sun, aiming to generate a clean, safe, and inexhaustible energy source. Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy. Unlike nuclear fission, which is the basis of current nuclear plants, fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste nor does it pose risks of large-scale nuclear disasters.

KSTAR uses a tokamak design, a toroid-shaped (doughnut-shaped) reactor that employs powerful magnetic fields to confine the hot plasma necessary for fusion to occur. Within this controlled environment, temperatures of millions of degrees Celsius are reached, high enough for hydrogen nuclei (typically in the form of deuterium and tritium) to fuse, emitting energy in the form of heat and light.

The development of an artificial sun, such as KSTAR, is of great importance for several reasons:

Clean and Sustainable Energy: Nuclear fusion has the potential to provide an almost limitless source of energy, free of carbon emissions, and without the dangers and long-term waste associated with nuclear fission. This type of energy could be crucial in combating climate change and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Scientific and Technological Advances: The development and operation of a fusion reactor like KSTAR drive research in various fields, including plasma physics, materials engineering, and superconductor technology. These advances not only benefit the project itself but also have broader applications in other areas of science and industry.

International Collaboration: Projects like KSTAR often involve international collaboration. Cooperation between different countries and organizations is essential to overcome the technical and economic challenges associated with nuclear fusion. This exchange of knowledge and resources can accelerate progress towards the realization of practical fusion energy.

Energy Security: As fossil fuel reserves deplete and global energy security concerns rise, nuclear fusion offers a viable alternative. The ability to generate sustainable energy from abundant sources like hydrogen can significantly contribute to long-term energy stability and security.

What is the Artificial Sun? Definition and Technical Description of the Project The “Artificial Sun” is a common term used to refer to experimental nuclear fusion reactors that seek to replicate the fusion process occurring in the Sun. One of the most advanced projects in this field is the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR). KSTAR is a tokamak, a toroid-shaped machine designed to confine hot plasma using powerful magnetic fields, allowing hydrogen nuclei to fuse at extremely high temperatures.

Technical Features of KSTAR

Magnetic Confinement: KSTAR uses superconducting magnets to generate an intense magnetic field that confines and stabilizes the hot plasma within the toroid. This is crucial for keeping the particles in motion and achieving the conditions necessary for fusion.

Extreme Temperatures: To achieve nuclear fusion, KSTAR must heat the plasma to temperatures above 100 million degrees Celsius. These temperatures are more than six times higher than the core of the Sun.

Hydrogen Plasma: The main fuel used in KSTAR is hydrogen, particularly the isotopes deuterium and tritium. When these nuclei fuse, they release a large amount of energy in the form of heat and particles.

Plasma Duration: One of KSTAR’s key objectives is to maintain stable plasma for extended periods. In 2020, KSTAR managed to maintain plasma at temperatures over 100 million degrees for 20 seconds, a significant milestone in fusion research.

Differences Between the Artificial Sun and the Real Sun Although the Artificial Sun and the real Sun share the principle of nuclear fusion, there are fundamental differences between the two:

Source of Energy:

Real Sun: The real Sun generates energy through the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in its core. This process converts hydrogen into helium, releasing energy in the form of light and heat that sustains life on Earth. Artificial Sun: Reactors like KSTAR also seek nuclear fusion, but they use advanced technologies to create and maintain the necessary conditions for fusion in a controlled environment on Earth. Temperature:

Real Sun: The core of the Sun reaches temperatures of around 15 million degrees Celsius. Artificial Sun: Fusion reactors need to heat plasma to much higher temperatures, typically above 100 million degrees Celsius, to compensate for the lower plasma density and the lack of extreme gravity. Plasma Confinement:

Real Sun: In the Sun, extremely strong gravity confines the plasma in the core, allowing fusion to occur. Artificial Sun: Tokamak reactors, like KSTAR, use magnetic fields generated by superconducting magnets to confine plasma in a small, controlled space. Duration and Stability:

Real Sun: Fusion in the Sun occurs continuously and stably for billions of years. Artificial Sun: Maintaining stable plasma in a fusion reactor is extremely challenging and currently can only be achieved for limited periods. Waste and Safety:

Real Sun: The solar fusion process does not produce hazardous waste for us. Artificial Sun: Fusion in reactors like KSTAR does not produce long-lived radioactive waste like fission reactors, but the handling of tritium and other byproducts still requires precautions.

The KSTAR Project (Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research) History and Development of KSTAR The KSTAR project, known as the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research reactor, is one of the most ambitious initiatives in the field of nuclear fusion. Its primary goal is to investigate and develop the technology needed to achieve controlled nuclear fusion, a source of clean and nearly limitless energy.

History of KSTAR

Project Initiation:

1990s: The idea of developing an advanced tokamak in South Korea began to take shape. The need for a sustainable and clean energy source drove preliminary research and studies. 1995: The Korea Institute of Fusion Energy (KFE) was established to lead the research and development efforts in nuclear fusion. Design and Construction:

2001: The detailed design of KSTAR was completed. A tokamak design with superconductor technology was chosen to improve efficiency and plasma confinement. 2002-2007: KSTAR’s construction took place on the KFE campus in Daejeon, South Korea. This period included the installation of superconducting magnets, heating systems, and diagnostics. First Operation:

2008: KSTAR achieved its first plasma, marking a significant milestone in South Korea’s fusion research. This achievement demonstrated the feasibility of its design and paved the way for more advanced experiments. Recent Advances:

2016: KSTAR maintained stable plasma at temperatures above 50 million degrees Celsius for 70 seconds. 2020: In a significant breakthrough, KSTAR maintained plasma at over 100 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds, surpassing its previous record and moving closer to the times required for practical energy generation. International Collaborations and Involved Partners The success of the KSTAR project would not be possible without international collaboration and the support of various organizations and countries. Nuclear fusion is a global challenge that requires combined efforts in terms of resources, knowledge, and technology.

International Collaborations:

ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor)

South Korea is one of the seven members of ITER, a multinational project aiming to demonstrate the viability of fusion as a large-scale energy source. The experience and knowledge gained in KSTAR are shared with ITER, and vice versa, facilitating mutual advancements. KSTAR serves as a testing ground for technologies and methods that could be used in ITER, strengthening cooperation and knowledge exchange. Bilateral Collaborations:

United States: Institutions like the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and MIT closely collaborate with KFE on joint research projects and the development of fusion technologies. European Union: European fusion organizations, such as EUROfusion, collaborate with KSTAR in various areas, including plasma physics and materials engineering. Conferences and Research Networks:

KFE and KSTAR actively participate in international conferences and research networks, such as the IAEA Fusion Energy Conference and the International Fusion Energy Organization. Industrial Partners:

Technology and Engineering Companies: Companies like Hyundai Heavy Industries and other South Korean technology firms have participated in the construction and improvement of KSTAR components, contributing their expertise in advanced engineering. Superconductor Manufacturers: The production and supply of superconducting magnets are crucial for KSTAR, and specialized companies in this field have been key partners in the project’s development.

Achievements and Recent Advances of KSTAR Since its commissioning, KSTAR has achieved several significant milestones in nuclear fusion research. These advances have solidified its position as one of the leading fusion projects in the world and have provided valuable insights for the future development of fusion energy.

First Plasma Production (2008)

In 2008, KSTAR generated its first plasma, marking the beginning of the reactor’s experimental operations. This achievement was crucial to demonstrate the viability of its design and lay the foundation for future experiments. Prolonged Plasma Confinement (2016):

In 2016, KSTAR reached an important milestone by maintaining stable plasma at temperatures above 50 million degrees Celsius for 70 seconds. This was a record in terms of plasma duration and stability, approaching the conditions necessary for practical energy generation. Extreme Plasma Temperatures (2020):

In 2020, KSTAR maintained plasma at over 100 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds. This achievement was significant as high temperatures are essential for nuclear fusion to occur. Maintaining these temperatures for an extended period was a crucial step towards the viability of fusion energy. Breaking Previous Records (2021):

In 2021, KSTAR broke its own record by maintaining plasma at over 100 million degrees Celsius for 30 seconds. This advance demonstrated improvements in plasma control and stability, which are vital for developing an operational fusion reactor. Comparison with Other Nuclear Fusion Projects, such as ITER KSTAR is not alone in the race towards fusion energy. Comparing it with other prominent projects, like ITER, helps contextualize its achievements and challenges.

Objectives and Scale

KSTAR: It is a research and development project focused on understanding plasma physics and material behavior under extreme conditions. Its primary goal is to achieve and maintain the conditions necessary for small-scale fusion. ITER: It is a much larger and more ambitious international project designed to demonstrate the viability of fusion as a large-scale energy source. ITER aims to generate 500 megawatts of fusion power from 50 megawatts of heating power, achieving a tenfold energy output. International Collaboration:

KSTAR: Although it has international collaborations, it is a national project led by South Korea. Its smaller scale allows greater flexibility in experimentation and quick adaptation to new discoveries. ITER: Involves 35 countries, including the European Union members, the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Large-scale collaboration allows for shared knowledge and resources but also introduces administrative and logistical complexities. Progress and Results:

KSTAR: Has achieved impressive milestones in terms of plasma duration and temperature. Its advancements in plasma control and superconductor technology contribute directly to the global understanding of fusion. ITER: Currently under construction, it is expected to achieve its first plasma in the 2020s and begin fusion operations in the 2030s. Its long-term goals include testing the integrity of the design and technology necessary for commercial-scale fusion. Technological Innovations:

KSTAR: Has pioneered the use of high-tech superconducting magnets and advanced magnetic confinement techniques. These developments are crucial for maintaining stable plasma at extremely high temperatures. ITER: Is introducing several innovations, including new materials handling techniques and advanced heating systems. ITER’s scale and resources allow it to test technologies that will be crucial for future commercial fusion power plants.