The fusion industry, which holds immense promise as a source of unlimited green energy, is rapidly growing and attracting investments from for-profit companies. However, a new study suggests that universities are not adequately fulfilling their role in supporting the development of this industry. While private industry plays a crucial role in funding research, academia is essential for providing the necessary workforce and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. This article analyzes the study’s findings and explores the steps universities can take to enable a robust fusion industry.
Despite the increasing interest in fusion energy, the academic network dedicated to plasma and fusion research in U.S.-based universities is limited. An analysis revealed that, on average, each institution has only two tenured or tenure-track faculty members specializing in plasma and fusion. In comparison, top programs in nuclear fission and aeronautics/astronautics have significantly more faculty members dedicated to these fields. This discrepancy clearly indicates the need for universities to hire additional faculty members and offer more educational channels in fusion to support the industry’s growth.
The study emphasizes the importance of public-private partnerships in fostering the success of the fusion industry. Universities must actively seek out partnerships with private fusion companies and recognize the opportunities they provide. By forming these collaborations, universities can benefit from industry expertise while providing the necessary training and education to students. Collaboration also allows for interdisciplinary work, facilitating the flow of innovation and knowledge across various engineering and science disciplines.
One of the key reasons academia will continue to play a crucial role in fusion’s growth is its unconflicted nature. Unlike private companies, universities have a mandate for information sharing and education, allowing innovation to flow freely. Fusion science inherently requires collaboration between physicists, computer scientists, engineers, chemists, and other disciplines, making academia an ideal environment for interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange.
While STEM disciplines are paramount in fusion research, the authors highlight the importance of expertise in non-STEM fields for the industry’s success. As fusion companies expand, they will require professionals skilled in finance, safety, licensing, market analysis, and other non-technical areas. Managing major geopolitical, societal, and economic impacts will also be crucial. Therefore, universities must ensure their programs equip students with a broad range of skills beyond STEM to meet the diverse needs of the fusion industry.
The authors propose several steps to strengthen the connections between academia and industry in the fusion sector. The first step is for universities to acknowledge the changing landscape and embrace the growth of the private sector. By seeking mutually beneficial partnerships, universities can tap into industry resources and expertise. Secondly, universities should find ways to reconcile their mission of unconflicted open access with the timelines and proprietary outputs demanded by private partnerships. Transparency is crucial for maintaining the industry’s credibility, and private companies should embrace publishing and sharing their findings through peer-reviewed journals.
To ensure that ideas and innovations transition from the lab to industry, universities must become more flexible and creative in their technology licensing strategies. Given the nascent nature of the fusion industry, novel approaches to licensing can facilitate the transfer of intellectual property for practical application. This flexibility will be essential for driving innovation and accelerating the industry’s growth.
The study’s findings highlight the significant role universities must play in supporting the growth of the fusion industry. By expanding their academic networks, fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, and establishing public-private partnerships, universities can contribute to the development of a skilled fusion workforce. Furthermore, universities must adapt to the changing landscape, embrace private sector growth, and find innovative ways to ensure ideas reach the market. With academia and industry working hand in hand, the fusion industry can achieve its potential as a sustainable and limitless source of clean energy.