Universities play a vital role in the growth and success of high-tech industries, especially in nascent sectors like fusion energy. However, a recent study suggests that the current number of fusion-oriented faculty and educational channels does not reflect the significance of universities in the fusion industry. In this article, we will analyze the importance of academia in the fusion industry and explore the steps universities can take to facilitate its development.
Fusion energy is gaining momentum as a potential source of unlimited green energy. It is a process that mimics the power source of the sun, where hydrogen atoms combine to form helium, releasing vast amounts of clean energy in the form of light and heat. The increasing excitement around fusion has led to the emergence of numerous for-profit companies positioning themselves at the forefront of the commercial fusion energy industry. These companies will require a skilled workforce to handle various tasks, making academia’s role crucial in training future fusion professionals.
Despite the growing interest in fusion, the academic network focused on fusion energy in the United States remains sparse. The study found that out of the 57 universities active in plasma and fusion research, the average number of tenured or tenure-track fusion faculty at each institution is only two. In comparison, other scientific fields like nuclear fission and aeronautics/astronautics have a significantly larger faculty presence. To support the growth of the fusion industry, it is essential for universities to diversify the field by hiring additional faculty and offering more educational tracks for both master’s students and undergraduates.
The success of the fusion industry relies on strong public-private partnerships. While private industry plays a dominant role in research funding, academia is equally critical for the industry’s development. Thus, it is important to establish collaborations and partnerships between academia, government, and private industry to create a robust fusion industry. These partnerships will be the driving force behind the growth and acceptance of fusion as a sustainable energy source.
Fusion science is inherently multidisciplinary, requiring expertise from various fields such as physics, computer science, engineering, and chemistry. Universities must create interdisciplinary programs that allow students to collaborate across different disciplines. By facilitating collaboration and knowledge sharing, universities can nurture the diverse skill sets needed in the fusion industry. These programs should also incorporate non-STEM disciplines, including finance, safety, licensing, and market analysis, to address the broader societal and economic impacts of the fusion industry.
MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center serves as an example of how universities can contribute to the growth of the fusion industry. The center, with its deep historical ties to government research programs, has played a crucial role in the spin-off of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), the largest fusion company globally. The collaboration between MIT and CFS on the SPARC project demonstrates the importance of academic institutions in driving tokamak science and advancing fusion research. Public and private partnerships like these will be vital in training students, fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, and executing small and midsize fusion programs effectively.
To facilitate the growth of the fusion industry, universities must acknowledge the rapidly changing landscape and adapt accordingly. Embracing the private sector’s growth in fusion and forging mutually beneficial partnerships are essential steps for universities. Additionally, universities need to find a balance between their mission of unconflicted open access and the condensed timelines and proprietary outputs associated with private partnerships. Private fusion companies should also contribute to the industry’s credibility by embracing transparency and publishing their findings through peer-reviewed journals.
In order to bridge the gap between the lab and industry, universities must adopt more flexible and creative technology licensing strategies. Ideas and innovations generated in academic institutions need to find their way into the private sector. By revisiting their licensing strategies, universities can ensure that valuable research outcomes are commercialized effectively, thus driving the growth of the fusion industry.
The future of the fusion energy industry depends heavily on the involvement of universities. By expanding fusion-oriented faculty, creating interdisciplinary programs, and establishing strong public-private partnerships, academia can play a crucial role in fostering the growth and development of the fusion industry. It is imperative that universities adapt to the changing landscape, embrace collaboration with the private sector, and find effective ways to translate research into tangible applications. By doing so, universities can ensure that fusion becomes a sustainable and viable source of clean energy in the future.