The back end

Invest in innovation

22 May 2009

Research and development, and innovation have a strategic role to play as a positive response to the financial crisis and its negative impacts on the real economy. Putting resources into R&D is a way of supporting the brightest talents and the more innovative companies. This means job opportunities for skilled workers, scientists and engineers, including the young, as well as a more secure base for those leading-edge technology branches that our economy increasingly depends upon.

In times of financial crisis, spending on R&D, innovation and education are often the first casualties. This should be avoided at all costs; not only will cutting R&D worsen the crisis, but also it will undermine subsequent growth and competitiveness. In fact it has been proven that strong public funding for R&D provides a safety net for long-term revenues. There are concrete examples of this. In previous crises, Japan, Korea and the United States chose to reinforce their R&D. Finland is also a shining example. In the early nineties the Finnish GDP fell by 13%. However during these challenging times Helsinki continued to invest in education and R&D. This strategy has borne fruits: Finland is today one of the leading countries in science and innovation. In 2005,

Finland reached nearly 3.5% of GDP in R&D expenditures; the best result in the EU after Sweden.

At the same time, as governments are facing other global challenges such as climate change, they are seeking solutions for a sustainable path to the future. As part of an investment strategy, strong consideration should be given to increasing the investment in R&D for sustainable energy production. There are good reasons why investment in fusion research should be part of this strategy.

Fusion has the potential to provide a sustainable solution to the ever-increasing European and global energy needs, which is a permanent societal challenge. Fusion could become a safe and an almost inexhaustible source of sustainable energy with a low environmental impact. The fusion process does not create greenhouse gases, other environmentally harmful pollutants or long-lasting radioactive waste. In the case of nuclear fusion flagship project ITER, the structural material will be conventional steels as used in nuclear technology and a limited amount of shorter-lived radioactive waste will be generated. In a fusion reactor, the amount of lithium in a current laptop battery and half a bathtub’s worth of deuterium could produce the same amount of electricity that a family of five would consume over 30 years. This is equivalent to the amount that is generated from burning 40 tons of coal, but without any CO2 emissions.

Moreover, fusion energy would allow us to enhance our security of supply and reduce our future energy bills. Today Europe spends about r240b ($320b) every year to import more than 50% of its energy, mostly from oil and gas sources, from outside the Union. According to current trends, this dependency will increase by up to 70% in 2030.

The biggest challenge for fusion is that it is a long-term solution when the prevailing trend is for short-term gain. We know however that focusing only on the short term is not risk-free, especially if one considers that the present crisis is the result of a dash for short-term profits. A strong case can be made for long term R&D in fusion to be part of a global R&D strategic plan. Fusion development in general, and the ITER construction in particular, depend strongly on advancements of a number of leading technologies; investing in fusion means strengthening innovation on many fronts. This is an acceptable bet for producing substantially high returns once commercial fusion reactors are up and running.

In the medium term, constructing ITER is expected to bring many benefits too. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that 38% of technology contracts in CERN have brought new products directly to the market. Also, the R&D at CERN has produced noteworthy spin-offs and unexpected results such as the internet. For ITER, we can expect similar results. Fusion research has already contributed to other fields of science such as astrophysics, space physics, applied mathematics, materials science and engineering disciplines. In addition to energy production, fusion could be used applications such as medical radiography and sterilization of medical products, propulsion of space vessels or the production of hydrogen.

A key aspect of fusion is its international dimension. ITER is a joint venture that brings together members whose countries hold more than half of the world’s population. The project allows all parties involved to have access to leading knowledge by being part of a demanding industrial and technological project. Furthermore the technology transfer process associated with fusion R&D requires a continuous interaction between the research community and industry. Both sides will take advantage from the spin-off technologies generated.

During 2009, Fusion for Energy, the European domestic agency providing Europe’s contribution to ITER, will launch 70 procurements worth r350m ($468m) and 70 grants worth r70m ($94m). This money will be made available not only to big companies but also to small to medium enterprises, the real backbone of the EU’s economy.

ITER provides a real opportunity in a time of crisis. Investing in fusion today may provide the key to sustainable energy for the well-being of future generations. It is a chance that we cannot afford to miss.

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