Wan Yuanxi, formerly the head of the Institute of Plasma Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is now the General Manager of the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) Project. A Tokamak is a machine that produces a doughnut-shaped magnetic field capable of containing high temperature plasma.
Thirty-four years ago, Wan Yuanxi entered the Institute of Plasma Physics in Hefei in Anhui Province and immersed himself in the study of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. After three decades of demanding work, Wan and his colleagues successfully built the world's first full superconducting experimental Tokamak fusion device. It has been nicknamed "the artificial sun" because it holds out the promise of an infinite source of clean energy and does so with processes similar to those found in the sun.
The success of Wan Yuanxi and his EAST project team has attracted much attention from all over the world. This summer, Wan was invited to France and Austria to attend a series of academic meetings in the fusion-energy field. On his return home, he told the press proudly that this Chinese project had won high praise on the international stage.
Under Wan's leadership the efforts of the EAST project team culminated in a working Tokamak. It was a novel design for while other researchers worldwide favored a circular configuration, Wan's team opted for a non-circular Tokamak device.
In September 2006, the team conducted their first test, successfully generating an electric current. In January 2007, they set another world record by generating the longest fusion burn in the history of this area of research.
Wan's strenuous efforts won respect both at home and abroad. In 2006 his outstanding contribution to the EAST project was recognized with the prestigious award "Outstanding Party Member of Anhui Province."
The EAST project relies on complex theories and requires advanced technologies as exceptionally high temperatures are involved. In essence, if the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium can be made to fuse together this will result in a tiny loss of mass coupled with a huge release of energy.
This process is similar to the reactions that take place in the sun. Therefore, scientists believe that if they can build a device which can withstand the extremely high temperatures together with the deuterium-tritium fusion reaction itself, and do this reliably to supply a stable and continuous output of energy, they will indeed have created an "artificial sun" and paved the way towards harnessing a safe, clean, and endless source of energy.
To achieve this goal, scientists everywhere have worked hard to build a device to meet such exacting requirements. Various experiments have shown that a Tokamak is likely to be the best solution. By 1995, nearly 100 laboratories equipped with experimental Tokamak devices were to be found around the globe.
Great scientific achievements usually come from bold thinking. Tokamak devices had always been circular. After years of theoretical study and numerous experiments, Wan Yuanxi and his colleagues felt that a non-circular Tokamak device might perform better for the deuterium-tritium fusion reaction. In 1997, Wan together with a group of outstanding scientific colleagues, drew up a plan for building a non-circular experimental superconducting Tokamak.
Its very novelty in the field meant that a non-circular Tokamak device would require state-of-the-art technologies. As the initiator of the plan, Wan Yuanxi would face huge personal embarrassment if he failed. However Wan said, "What is more important is that failure would mean that our nation would not only incur a significant financial loss but would also see its scientific reputation suffer."
In order to conduct scientific research, one must be both prudent and precise. Basing his work on known sound scientific principles, Wan Yuanxi formulated a thorough plan to minimize potential risks. Now after years of hard work, Wan Yuanxi and the EAST project team have made a major breakthrough. Their experiments have been recognized internationally as being hugely valuable in the field of Tokamak study. In October 2006, the 21st International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Fusion Energy Conference was convened in Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan Province. The event is popularly known as the "Olympics of the fusion-energy scientists." Just one month earlier, the EAST project had successfully generated its first electric current. Wan Yuanxi announced the exciting news at the conference.
On hearing this, Professor Goldstone, head of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, asked all the participants to stand up and applaud such a brilliant success. After the conference, many foreign experts approached Wan, hoping to participate in this research. To date, the EAST project team has already undertaken more than ten cooperative projects with laboratories in other countries.
From the initial discussions through to the final stage of actually generating an electric current, it took the EAST project team only ten years and 300 million yuan (US$40 million). Remarkably this means that compared with similar projects in other countries, China's EAST project team managed to complete their research not only with the least expenditure but also in the shortest time. What's more, all the key components of their non-circular Tokamak device were designed and produced by Chinese scientists.
The EAST team now owns no fewer than 65 intellectual property rights in the project. At a national project evaluation workshop, the EAST project was highly commended as it "has secured intellectual property rights covering the whole device" and "the technology now leads the whole world in the fusion-energy field."
Wan Yuanxi remains calm about the fame all this has brought. He said, "The government put its trust in me and in return I must do my best."
He added, "It is not really correct to describe EAST as an 'artificial sun' at present, because the device is still at the experimental stage. I hope EAST can lay the foundations for further research leading to the commercial use of sustainable and energy-efficient nuclear-fusion reactors. To achieve this goal, I think we will need at least another 30 to 50 years."
Last year, on the occasion of his award of "Outstanding Party Member of Anhui Province," Wan said modestly, "In any scientific research project, everything that is done is ordinary. However, if we can integrate all the ordinary parts into a whole, this will be greater than the sum of the parts. As a party member, I must work in a down-to-earth way. I should do my own work well and seek to unite my colleagues to jointly pursue a greater goal. When everyone is actively involved, the whole team can be truly united and highly effective."
Wan Yuanxi said, "In my whole life, if I can do something that really benefits my country and its people, I will be very happy." He is now in his eighth year with the EAST project team having left the Institute of Plasma Physics in his early sixties. Today, Wan is still full of enthusiasm for his work. He said, "Now I am a delegate at the 17th CPC National Congress and I will try my best to help the younger generation of scientists realize the dream of building a nuclear-fusion reactor to supply human beings with unlimited, clean energy just like the sun does."
(China.org.cn, 17thcongress.org.cn by Chen Xia October 14, 2007)