Chinese tokamak donation helps fuel Thailand’s ambitions in fusion energy research


Science reporter Holly Chik investigates Chinese-Thai collaboration in fundamental science and cutting-edge technology. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s influence on Bangkok spans everything from smart city AI to polar research. In the second part of the series, she examines cooperation in fusion energy research.

Thailand wants to become South-East Asia’s hub for fusion energy research, with the region’s first tokamak device due to arrive in the country from China this month.

Thailand Tokamak-1, a renovated device formerly used by Chinese researchers, will become a training ground for scientists and engineers from Asean member states, said Thawatchai Onjun, executive director of the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology.

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A team of Thai scientists spent three months at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Plasma Physics in Hefei, Anhui province, this year to learn how to run the tokamak. It will assemble and install TT-1 in central Thailand with on-site support from Chinese peers.

“Fusion energy is the future energy,” Thawatchai said in an interview in Bangkok. “It is not just for Thailand but for everyone.

“It’s a regional facility. It’s for all of the Asean community to learn about fusion in terms of engineering, technology and basic science.”

As a first step to joining the global research effort, Thailand looked to China for parts of a retired tokamak, with a chamber and magnets in good condition, he said.

The tokamak donated to Thailand is the HT-6M machine developed by the institute in Hefei, where it operated for 18 years up to 2002.

“It’s a good start for us,” Thawatchai said. “We have some parts from China and we work together to design and develop other systems like the power supply and the vacuum system. We bring new technology into this machine to make it better.

“Most of the time, we see big, advanced countries like the United States, China, Japan, Russia and Europe talking about this wonderful energy.

“But as small, developing countries like Thailand, we should contribute something to this project of the world. We want to be part of this beautiful thing to help make the world better.”

Fusion, the same process that has kept the sun burning for the past 5 billion years, is regarded as the ultimate solution to humanity’s energy needs. Unlike today’s uranium-fuelled nuclear power plants, a fusion reactor would produce no radioactive waste.

A tokamak – built to harness the energy of fusion – produces an extremely powerful magnetic field to contain and control hydrogen gas 10 times hotter than the core of the sun.

China is ready to make a key component for world’s largest fusion reactor

Thawatchai said Thailand could learn a lot from China, which “started from scratch” and was now part of the world’s largest fusion experiment – ITER in France.

“The scientific progress of China has been incredible,” Thawatchai said. “For fusion, they started with a small number of teams. Now they are so big that they are able to do a big part of the ITER project.”

China is one of seven ITER member states, along with the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US. The project, which has been under construction since 2010, aims to bring fusion to the point where a demonstration fusion reactor can be designed, according to ITER.

Thawatchai said that for Thailand and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the next step could focus on innovation and technology in parts of a fusion power plant.

“We will work with this machine for at least five to 10 years to learn about fusion,” he said. “We need a lot of experience in controlling plasma and developing diagnostic parts.”

The nine members of the Thai team, including Nopporn Poolyarat (fourth from right), the head of the Thailand Institute of Nuclear Technology’s fusion and plasma division. Photo: Handout

One possible area of research would be the material on the interior wall of the tokamak, which should be capable of withstanding temperatures of hundreds of thousands or millions of degrees Celsius, Thawatchai said.

Nopporn Poolyarat, head of the Thai institute’s fusion and plasma division, was part of the nine-member team that went to Hefei in June to learn how to run a tokamak. He said it was the first time he had got his hands on a fusion machine.

“For our team, no one has experience in hands-on operation, even though some of us have visited tokamak machines before to observe their operations,” he said.

“The feeling is different because in a big machine when you observe the operation, you just see the screen. The operation time for TT-1 is 0.1 of a second, or 100 milliseconds, but we have many diagnostic systems and fast cameras to see what happened.”

Chinese scientists hail ‘important step’ towards nuclear fusion

About 60 Chinese researchers would travel to Thailand to help assemble, adjust and test TT-1 before its official launch, Xinhua reported last month.

The Thai team estimated it would take about three months to assemble the device, which is 3 metres in diameter and 4 metres tall, in a 60 million baht (US$1.7 million) building in Ongkharak district, about 90km northeast of Bangkok.

Somsak Dangtip, manager of the Thai institute’s advanced engineering and nuclear technology centre, said the building was carefully designed to accommodate the machine.

“The operation of the machine is so sensitive to temperatures,” he said. “Thailand is very warm in the summer and very humid in the rainy season. We need air-conditioned rooms [and humidity control] for the machine.”

Compared to the seven-storey ITER tokamak in France, Somsak said the small machine in Thailand would be more flexible and could contribute to the global project by researching specific scenarios the giant machine ran into.

“If they run into problems and they want to make an additional investigation of how the plasma behaves in certain scenarios, it is very difficult for them to adjust the operation programme just to make a specific investigation,” he said.

“Our machine is much more flexible, so we can bring in that problem, prepare the scenario and try to answer their problems.”

Thawatchai said the urgent need for clean energy to tackle global warming and pollution would fast-track the development of fusion energy and it might become a reality around 2040.

“China and the United Kingdom have been talking about very challenging projects in terms of fusion energy,” he said. “I think it will come faster than a lot of people expect.”

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