Chinese Fusion Energy Programs Are A Growing Competitor in the Global Race to Fusion Power
China is growing as a hub for active fusion research, as its scientists and entrepreneurs are making significant investments in fusion energy. China has two main fusion enterprises driving scientific advances and investment: the government-funded research based at the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Hefei Institute of Physical Science and the privately-funded fusion research of ENN Group.
In Hefei, government-funded scientists operate the recently-upgraded Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST). The machine is government-funded, through the National Nuclear Corporation, a large state-owned corporation. It cost nearly US$900 million to build and operate through 2019. Since then, the government has been investing large sums of money into development with there recently being awarded a second tranche of another US$900 million in funding for the project.
In the past year, the EAST device has achieved world records, maintaining a plasma temperature of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds and 160 million Celsius for 20 seconds. These achievements should be seen as a huge success for a fusion device and show the scientific prowess of China’s research teams. The United States Department of Energy has run partnerships between American and Chinese scientists to help share knowledge.
In light of successes from EAST, China is bolstering its fusion project even further with increases in funding and planning to developing subsequent fusion initiatives, such as the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR). The preliminary conceptual designs of this device were finished in 2015 and the engineering design started in 2017. Chinese scientists see CFETR as the next step after the multinational ITER project in France, which China participates in. Construction is planned for the 2020s as a demonstration of the feasibility of large-scale fusion power generation. They are training a growing cadre of scientists, with a goal of training 1,000 new plasma physicists to support this program. This plan by the Chinese government shows a real commitment to fusion and makes them a possible front-runner in the global rush to viable fusion technology.
In the private sector, the ENN Group is a Chinese energy company and one of China’s largest private companies. The ENN Energy Research Institute is a subset of ENN that was created in 2006 and this houses the ENN compact fusion program. Not much is publicly available about ENN’s fusion research, but they are well known among fusion scientists. Their program is growing, two separate fusion projects: a spherical tokamak called EXL-50 and a field reversed configuration the HeLong Experiment (EHL Experiment).
ENN has made large investments into their fusion program and claims an investment of over US$100 million into their program. They sank roughly US$10 million over 2 years into duplicating the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration for one of their devices. Their Center for Compact Fusion (CCF), founded in 2018, plans to demonstrate a net gain in 10-15 years claiming a long-term budget of US$150 million per year. The CCF program has been growing rapidly since 2018 and tripled its R&D staff to 1oo staff members as well as brought on various universities for fusion partnerships. The expansion of the ENN fusion program shows that the company clearly sees fusion as an important investment opportunity. While ENN is privately owned and run, the intersection between big business and government in China is often murky, and this program can be seen as a supplement to the publicly-run program.
The significant work being done in China to improve and support the country’s fusion efforts fits as a part of their efforts to dominate the technologies of the 21st century. Bipartisan majorities in the U.S. government have deemed these strategies to be a key part of the new “Great Power Competition” between the two countries.
If the U.S. does not begin taking similar, long-term measures to invest in and improve its fusion energy programs, the clean energy export industry of the future could be dominated by China. The United States has an important, and potentially decisive advantage: a private sector that is investing and striving towards commercial fusion energy. The time is now for countries like the U.S. to build new partnerships between the public and private sectors to make sure that its long-term scientific leadership in fusion energy is not overtaken by a geopolitical competitor. The stakes could not be higher.