Promoting fusion-powered innovation
Nuclear fusion could be the perfect solution to the world's energy problems - but first, we have to work out how to produce fusion power cost-effectively. Research is getting closer, and the advances it is delivering could also be useful in other areas. An EU-funded project has highlighted the potential of technology transfers to industry.
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Abundant, affordable fusion power may seem like a distant dream, but in fact the researchers striving to harness nuclear fusion have already made a lot of progress. The innovative technologies they have been developing to tap into this virtually unlimited source of energy — such as plasma handling techniques, materials able to withstand extreme temperatures, and the remote handling systems needed inside a reactor — could have a number of applications beyond fusion.
The FUTTA project analysed technologies developed by British and German fusion laboratories, as well as those of the Joint European Torus (JET), to identify those with particular potential for transfer to industry. Based on this assessment, it initiated a dialogue between these institutions and a wide variety of companies that might benefit from their advances.
“We wanted to show that fusion technology, which is usually viewed as a long-term investment, can also have an impact in the short term,” says Lluc Diaz of the Technology Transfer Programme Office of the European Space Agency (ESA), who managed the project.
Support from space
It is a similar remit, Diaz notes, to that of promoting wider adoption of technologies originally developed for applications in space. ESA, he adds, draws on more than 20 years of experience with this activity, for which it has built up a wide network of technology brokers and dissemination channels.
The agency was therefore well positioned to support EUROfusion, the European Consortium for the Development of Fusion Energy. To highlight the potential of making fusion technologies available to the wider world, FUTTA identified examples of several transfers that had already been completed via other channels. These notably included innovative alloys for equipment exposed to extreme temperatures, which are being adapted for possible applications in solar thermal power plants.
Other success stories showcased by FUTTA include an analytical method used to examine components inside a fusion reactor, which was later repurposed to study a camera retrieved from the Hubble Space Telescope, and a fusion technology applied in the construction of an instrument of the Philae lander of ESA’s comet chaser Rosetta. Fusion technologies have great potential for applications in space, says Diaz, for whom aeronautics, manufacturing and energy top the list of sectors for which such transfers could be of interest.
A promising portfolio
In total, FUTTA selected 26 fusion technologies for promotion. Descriptions were included in ESA’s Technology Exchange Portal and disseminated both electronically and at a number of events. FUTTA and the affiliated technology brokers also contacted companies directly to discuss the potential of transfers from fusion research and present specific technologies, Diaz explains. Some 500 businesses were approached, he adds, and where concrete negotiations were initiated, the team was also on hand to support the various parties.
However, says Diaz, the technologies involved are at very early stages of their development, and transfers of such advances typically take three or four years. FUTTA paved the way for the required interaction, but was not able to complete a transfer within the two years of its operation.
It was a pilot initiative with a limited scope, launched to test the potential of technology transfer from fusion research, Diaz explains. This endeavour concluded with a recommendation to set up a broader, more permanent technology transfer programme, which could build on the outcomes of its forerunner project.
By the time the project ended in June 2015, it had managed to raise awareness of the potential not just in industry, but also among organisations producing these fusion technologies, Diaz notes. The inventors themselves, it seems, are not always aware that many of the problems they set out to solve also arise elsewhere.