The naysayers have had their day. Over 40 private companies around the world are racing to develop commercial fusion. Many predict their technologies will deliver their energy to the grid in the 2030s. In the last few years, we have seen serious investment in fusion and significant breakthroughs. As a result, the famous cliche has finally lost ground. As fusion moves from experimentation to a major industry, it is not only exciting for the future of clean energy, but it is also a huge opportunity for the engineering companies that form its supply chain.
In 2022, fusion companies spent over $500m on their supply chain. That is set to grow to over $7bn per year by the time they build their “First of a Kind” power plants, likely to be in the early 2030s. Looking even further ahead, spending will potentially be in the trillions for a mature fusion industry (timescales range from 2035-2050). This is based on data from a survey of private fusion companies carried out by the FIA, and presented in our report, The Fusion Supply Chain, Opportunities and Challenges.
The current demand is for small-scale specialised components for proof-of-concept fusion devices. But once these concepts are proven, there will need to be a ramp-up in demand for these specialist components.
Products such as high-powered magnets, lasers, high-temperature superconducting wire, power electronics, ultra-efficient heat management technologies, vacuum chambers, control systems, and materials that can withstand the extreme conditions in a fusion vessel will all be in higher demand. We need people to make them.
From science to engineering
Precision engineering and manufacturing are required to meet the substantial need for these components. These are highly specialized components that must be produced via advanced manufacturing and materials techniques, with great precision, in order to meet tight tolerances and prove performance under extreme conditions.
In addition to fusion device components, Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) companies will also be needed. Most fusion devices aim to generate heat, so can more or less slot into a power plant design. Companies building fusion devices will need help to build these power plants.
What should you do now to prepare?
If you're a manufacturer of the parts fusion needs, now is a good time to think about how you will scale. But existing suppliers will not be enough. We need innovative new entrants with new ideas, but also for existing precision manufacturers to pivot skills and production capabilities towards creating fusion parts. Aerospace engineers, for example, solve the most difficult problems in high consequence environments for a wide range of customers. Some can - and already have - turned their hands to fusion.
The challenge, however, is when. Fusion is currently proving the concept, and its needs are largely met by today’s specialist suppliers. But the moment a company hits commercial viability, they will want to expand rapidly. And a world desperate for clean energy will also want them to do so quickly. That means at some point – probably in the next decade – there will be a sudden dramatic demand for a wide range of fusion suppliers. But exactly when, and which technology will be first, is currently unclear.
So, how can engineering companies position themselves to support fusion’s success when the time comes, without undue risks in the short term? Our report – through conversations and survey data – identified some opportunities.
Understand the opportunities
Evaluate potential markets and opportunities by engaging with the fusion industry, for example by attending events and networking forums (or joining the FIA as an Affiliate Member). Better connections between fusion companies and suppliers will help innovators spot opportunities to add value and understand how fast things are moving.
The fusion industry also needs to further engage with engineering companies that have built global supply chains, who can speak to subjects such as standardization and modularization of parts, building relationships with Tier 1 suppliers, and promoting supplier innovation. Cross-industry collaborations will be mutually beneficial. We encourage involvement.
Explore risk sharing mechanisms
Our recent report found a chicken and egg scenario. Fusion companies want suppliers to be ready, but suppliers want commitments before they build capacity. To address this, both sides need to increase engagement – alongside investors and governments – to explore risk-sharing methods, such as fusion investors making investments in the suppliers that will support their companies, or governments using policy, grants, PPPs, or national labs to set the supply chain direction. Collaboration and communication will be the key.
A bright future for fusion, at last
Fusion offers the prospect of a virtually inexhaustible source of clean energy that greatly mitigates the climate and energy crises. Global fusion power could even increase international stability, taking away resource rich countries’ abilities to wield their power over others. Furthermore, the economic benefits of fusion on a global scale are tremendous. To support fusion power on the grid , we need engagement from a wide range of engineering companies, investors, and those setting industrial policy. Even if making big bets may feel risky, now is the time to start engaging so you – and we – are ready when the time comes.
Andrew Holland is CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, a nonprofit organization whose members are the fusion developers working to make fusion power at scale a reality, and its affiliate members are helping shape the global fusion energy economy.