Gaining More Bang for Fusion’s Buck With Pivot-Support Programmes

Technology Policy

Gaining More Bang for Fusion’s Buck With Pivot-Support Programmes

Paper
Posted on: 10th February 2022
Olamide Oguntoye
Policy Lead, Science & Innovation Unit

    Executive Summary

    Executive Summary

    Nuclear fusion promises not only an abundant new source of energy but also the possibility of technology breakthroughs for other sectors, outside of power generation, worth trillions of dollars. But despite the recent surge in private funding for fusion, the best way to harness these technology spillovers remains unclear.

    Countries with a growing cohort of fusion startups, like the US and UK, can address the spillover challenge through pivot-support programmes (PSPs). PSPs are a policy proposal designed to help capitalise on the increasing investment in fusion technology. To fully reap the benefits, governments must prepare to take three steps:

    • Assess the need. Commission an evaluation study, led by a relevant institution such as the UK Atomic Energy Authority in partnership with the Fusion Industry Association, to identify critical challenges for fusion companies concerning technology commercialisation beyond power production. The result will validate the need for government intervention, and help to identify the priority areas and the required extent of support.
    • Pilot a programme. Set up a team to execute a pilot PSP, working closely with business-promotion agencies, technology-transfer offices and advanced energy-research agencies. A pilot must be well-timed to fit with the milestones set by fusion companies for core technology development.
    • Review and update. Use the experience gained from the PSP pilot to refine the programme framework, and consider expanding its scope to serve other trailblazing areas of climate innovation with potential spillover opportunities.

    PSPs are not a panacea for all the challenges of fusion technology. But they are a way to increase the impact of fusion’s growing inflow of private capital. For countries like the UK and US, adopting PSPs would ensure a seamless flow of innovation between sectors while opening new frontiers for a green economy.

    Same Ambition, New Possibilities

    Same Ambition, New Possibilities

    The nuclear-fusion industry holds significant promise as a breeding ground for innovations relevant to other sectors. In 2021, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in partnership with American company Commonwealth Fusion Systems completed an experiment, their result claimed a world record for the most powerful high-temperature superconductor (HTS) magnet. Although the experiment was part of a long-held scientific ambition to produce electric power from fusion, it opened new possibilities in other sectors where HTS technology is in demand, like energy storage and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

    Figure 1 – Investment in fusion companies (in USD billions)

    Note: 2021 or latest available

    Source: TBI analysis

    Investors are now taking part in a gold rush for fusion startups, with tech billionaires and institutional investors throwing their weight behind promising companies. By the end of 2021, private investments in fusion startups had grown to nearly $5 billion (Figure 1), with most of the funding secured in the past two years. Partners from tech companies to oil and gas giants are all involved. Although multilateral programmes like ITER (the world’s largest fusion experiment, involving 35 countries) have long dominated fusion research, emerging companies are changing the landscape.

    Uncertainties Ahead

    Uncertainties Ahead

    Fusion is a potentially industry-disrupting source of clean energy. But there are uncertainties about whether the companies leading the development of this technology will achieve commercial electricity production within the promised timelines (Figure 2).

    Figure 2 – Technology-development milestones for selected fusion startups