A research collaboration between Tunisia and China has yielded plans to develop a pioneering laboratory dedicated to plasma physics, a key element of nuclear fusion research which will be based at Tunisia’s prestigious National Engineering School of Tunis at the University of Tunis El Manar (UTM).
The initiative is being led by Tunisia’s National Center for Nuclear Sciences and Technologies (CNSTN – Centre National des Sciences et Technologies Nucléaires), also at UTM, together with the Institute of Plasma Physics – Chinese Academy of Sciences (ASIPP).
An agreement to create the laboratory was signed by Adel Trabelsi, CNSTN director general, and Song Yuntao, ASIPP director general, during a meeting of the Tunisian School of Plasma Physics and Nuclear Fusion, a one-week session of learning and debates, held in Hammamet, Tunisia.
Song said at the Hammamet event that the agreement with Tunisian scientific establishments underscores China’s “strong commitment to promoting scientific and technological collaboration” and will build academic ties with Tunisia.
Tunisia relies on natural gas for most of its electricity generation, but its government has been assessing whether to build a nuclear power plant since 2006, with the Tunisian Electricity and Gas Company leading feasibility studies and working with international experts.
A significant scientific event
Trabelsi said: “This agreement stipulates the establishment of the first laboratory of plasma physics and nuclear fusion in Tunisia. This constitutes a significant scientific event for Tunisia,” adding that it would work on “one of the most important areas of scientific research in recent years”.
Trabelsi, who is also a physics professor at UTM and has been involved in promoting the collaboration agreement, said experts from both organisations are now planning the laboratory and its equipment, with funding coming from the Chinese and Tunisian institutes, and El Manar University, with donations of technology from Tunisia and China.
The initial laboratory will be a small-scale operation costing EUR100,000 (about US$107,500), which will, it is hoped, open by the New Year, he said, paving the way to a larger facility that will cost EUR5 million.
“The next stage will bring more equipment and upgrades to the existing one,” Trabelsi said.
Initially, participating researchers will be largely Tunisian, but Trabelsi said experts from other Middle Eastern and North African countries would be recruited, with visits by Chinese scientists who will provide recommendations and share experience. Ownership of intellectual property of innovations generated at the new institution would be shared by the laboratory and the scientists developing them.
The deal will encourage collaboration on nuclear fusion and plasma physics research between CNSTN and ASIPP, with between 30 and 40 researchers and students working together each year. They will also work with researchers from France’s Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives, which has also agreed to participate in the collaboration.
Other nuclear-focused higher education and research centres in Tunisia include the Centre CERU Nuclear Medicine, a medical imaging platform exploring nuclear medicine and radiology. The government also runs the Tunisia National Centre for Radiation Protection in Tunis.
Speaking to University World News, Fatma Argoubi, assistant professor for physics at UTM, said that “several faculty members from UTM and CNSTN are working on various aspects of the field”, with students having benefited from three sessions of the plasma and fusion school.
“The laboratory will also help train students and educators in this field,” she added. The CNSTN and ASIPP have agreed that the first laboratory project will involve setting up a linear plasma experiment – a technique that can blow plasma onto a target.
Trabelsi told University World News: “The cooperation with China started in 2022. We organised a plasma school, as a workshop, at [an earlier meeting of] the Tunisian School of Plasma Physics and Nuclear Fusion.
The director general said the school gathers students from across the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon, with its key aim being to “train young researchers in this domain”.
In June 2023, 60 students, researchers and other experts in plasma physics and nuclear fusion were invited, with specialists from Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, as well as France, organising the event, said Trabelsi.
Trabelsi said that the laboratory could also aid students in other Middle Eastern and North African countries as well as in the Sahel, for example in Senegal and Mauritania, to access the latest developments in plasma physics and nuclear fusion. This collaboration is set, not only to boost scientific ties between Tunisia and China, but also to reshape the region’s academic landscape,” said Trabelsi.
Diplomatic and political significance
Beyond its scientific implications, the partnership carries diplomatic and political significance.
“It underscores China’s increasing influence in a strategically important region for the West. The laboratory signifies more than just scientific advancement; it represents a complex interplay of international cooperation, diplomatic intentions, and shifting geopolitical dynamics,” Trabelsi told University World News.
The Tunisian director stressed that, despite its focus on nuclear fusion and plasma, there would be no physical or environmental risks posed by its work, as staff would be well-qualified to use the equipment.
“There are, indeed, safety measures, but typical ones, and not those specialised for nuclear measures,” he said, stressing that the initial work would focus more on plasma than fusion per se. Plasma is the environment within which fusion reactions are projected to take place – a hot, charged gas made of positive ions and free-moving electrons, with properties distinct from solids, liquids or gases.
As a result, he hoped the laboratory’s work would complement the major France-based International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, in which China is working with the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States to create the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy.
Assessing the potential importance of success in this project for the creation of boundless energy, Trabelsi stressed the value of his new teaching initiative in creating new fusion experts.
“It is important to develop qualified people in this field because it will be thriving in the future. By 2050, we will witness that humankind will use nuclear for electricity and energy sources,” he told University World News.