Tim Bestwick shares his insights on the opportunities and challenges for startups in the fusion energy industry of the future
The UK is a driving force in fusion energy and hosts the world’s leading fusion machine, the EU’s Joint European Torus (JET). The UK government has recently announced an investment of £220m for the initial concept design stage of a practical electricity-generating fusion device. Fusion energy has historically been dominated by public sector research organisations; however, we are entering a new era which increasingly features privately-funded startup companies, and public and private entities are looking to collaborate in the quest for the ‘holy grail’ of energy from nuclear fusion. We spoke to Tim Bestwick, Chief Technology Officer at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, to get his expert opinion on how start-ups can fit into the vision and capitalise on the high levels of state funding now flowing into the sector.
Collaboration is key
How will this substantial government investment impact the private sector? “Building a successful future for this emerging technology will require collaboration between both the public and private sectors – they are complementary, with each fulfilling a different role,” says Tim. “The field of fusion energy faces huge technical challenges and the industry has not yet converged on one technology – we are still exploring several options. This creates the need for a community of organisations addressing multiple innovative technical solutions.”
Public projects aften take a comprehensive systems-level approach, addressing all the issues and considering every aspect of the technology, and they are likely to take the lowest technical risk approach. In contrast, private companies can specialise and take a narrower approach, developing innovative technologies with higher technical risk and potentially getting things done more quickly. “Such a combination of different approaches, with a spectrum of technical risk, is exactly what is needed to drive innovation in fusion energy,” says Tim.
The Culham campus
Mirroring moves at other major UK science research sites to use their facilities to drive economic impact, UKAEA’s Culham Campus is intent on becoming a world-leading centre where fusion can be both the overall end goal and a starting point for technologies that may have wider applications beyond fusion.
Culham is home to both the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research and the EU’s Joint European Torus (JET) – still the biggest and most powerful fusion energy device in existence. Alongside hosting these major fusion experiments, UKAEA encourages collaboration between companies and funds the development of interesting new technologies, offering several high-tech facilities specialising in different areas that will be necessary to deliver fusion. “The key is to start stimulating a supply chain that will provide innovative technologies to support large-scale fusion energy projects,” says Tim. For example, it is crucial to develop advanced precision robotics that can withstand the extreme conditions found in fusion reactors, such as exposure to hazardous materials and a radioactive environment. So UKAEA has developed ‘RACE’, the UK’s leading research centre in “extreme robotics”, as well as other facilities trying to solve a wide variety of issues surrounding fusion, such as creating a stable plasma environment, achieving tritium self-sufficiency and developing materials which can withstand extreme conditions.
Challenges for startups
Beyond the technical challenges, what are the biggest problems faced by startups in the fusion energy industry? “The timescale for investors must be one challenge” says Tim. “Investors may have to play a longer game than in other sectors before they can realize a return on their investments – although the prize is enormous.” This highlights the crucial role of long-term, patient capital investors like the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund (UKI2S) that understand the requirements of investing in long-cycle deep tech with high technical risk. Compared to other industries where investors might expect to receive a return on their investment in 3-7 years, in the field of fusion energy this could be 15-20 years or more. Investing in this industry requires investors with both a high-risk appetite and the patience to invest in early-stage technology.
The future for fusion
What does the future hold for fusion energy? “I have high hopes that technology from fusion energy projects will benefit other fields,” says Tim. Spinouts from fusion energy projects may have important applications for other fields, providing short-term benefits alongside the long-term research. For instance, magnetically-confined fusion may well require the development of a new generation of high-temperature materials for magnets which show promise for other applications. For example Tokamak Energy, one of the leading private companies racing to deliver energy from nuclear fusion, recently received grant funding from the UKI2S Innovate Accelerator, a joint initiative between UKI2S and Innovate UK (IUK). The funding will enable Tokamak Energy to accelerate the development of improved ultra-high field magnets to contain the plasma within its next fusion device, and also to explore non-energy applications such as portable MRI scanners and manufacturing radio isotopes for medical use.
Although there are still many technical hurdles that must be overcome before energy from nuclear fusion becomes a reality, increasing investment funding and opportunities for public-private collaborations are paving the way for new innovative technologies. “This is a field with both huge risk and reward” says Tim. “We expect to see important technical developments that will accelerate the rate of progress in fusion – these are exciting times.”