The Fusion Industry Association (FIA)’s new report, “The Fusion Industry Supply Chain: Opportunities and Challenges” is based on a survey of 27 private fusion companies and suppliers. FIA, established in 2018, is a US-registered non-profit independent trade association for the international nuclear fusion industry headquartered in Washington DC. The 43-page report projects significant growth for fusion suppliers in the coming years while finding limited risk in the current geopolitical landscape, which it says is “a big win for the fusion industry”.

The survey calculated that the supply chain was worth over $500m in 2022 and is expected to grow to over $7bn by the time companies build their “First of a Kind” power plants “and potentially trillions in a mature fusion industry (timescales for this range from 2035-2050)”. However, fusion companies said their suppliers see building the capacity to meet future demand as too risky without committed orders. The transition from the scientific experimentation and machine production phases to a major global infrastructure industry “requires significant planning and foresight”. The report says the fusion community “is on its way to provide a sustainable, reliable, and abundant form of clean energy”.

While most of the materials and components for commercial fusion power plants will be met through already existing supply chains (concrete, steel, power electronics, etc.), there are a limited set of supply chain needs that are unique to the fusion industry. These are mostly specialised manufactured components, such as high-powered magnets, laser components, heat management technologies, advanced materials, high powered semiconductors, and fusion fuel. Needs also include specialist contractors to help make parts, as well as legal services.

Longer term needs could include Engineering, Procurement & Construction (EPC) firms to support the transition from fusion technology into the factories and power plants that will scale up into a fusion industry. Currently, advanced fusion developers around the world source most parts locally, but all rely on global suppliers. The report says a majority of fusion developers felt supply chain requirements could be met by existing suppliers, but they would need to scale up significantly to meet future demands, some as soon as 1-2 years (though timescales vary significantly). “New innovative suppliers that address challenges in new ways or with greater efficiency will be important.”

The biggest challenge is balancing supplier scale with risk. Fusion companies need suppliers to scale ahead of demand, but suppliers are reluctant to do so without commitments or clarity, which fusion companies still struggle to give long-term. However, “contrary to widespread belief outside the industry, there was limited concern about geopolitical supply risk”. No critical parts or materials face insufficient global supply or come solely from unstable countries. Where such risks exist, it is considered manageable with foresight and planning.

Recommendations arising from the surveys include:

  • Increase investment, both public and private, into fusion to give confidence about the necessity of supplier scale.
  • Experiment with risk-sharing financing to enable suppliers to invest in new capacity now.
  • Create online networks and an annual supplier event, to help communication and awareness between fusion companies and suppliers.
  • Deploy standardisation and regulation to bring more certainly to the supply chain and confidence to make long-term investments.

The FIA says it is working with national regulators to support establishing a regulatory regime for commercial fusion that permanently and completely separates fusion regulation from fission. “Establishing international best-practices for a regulatory regime that both protects public health and safety and supports innovation will drive fusion development – by giving suppliers confidence that their long-term design choices and associated production investments will be fit for purpose.” Governments should ensure that regulations support public health and safety, while encouraging innovation.

The report concludes by noting “a strange dichotomy”. The surveys show that, while there is optimism that fusion developers will be able to meet their goals without serious disruption, there is also concern combined that fusion will not have the resources to be able to scale. “If this sounds like a paradox, it’s because of the difference in timeframe,” the report notes. On the one hand, fusion companies are working now to build the machines that produce a scientific proof-of concept and will be ready to move swiftly into building pilot plants. This is an increase in scale from today, but in a linear direction. On the other hand, when moving from building the “First of a Kind” power plant to a commercial industry, this increase in scale will be exponential, with rapid growth across nearly all needs.

“The difference between building one or two pilot plants and building the hundreds of power plants that companies suggest a fully-realized fusion industry would look like will take a state-change in both the companies and the supply chain themselves. Fortunately, the timeframe makes that manageable. Fusion companies say they anticipate producing pilot plants in the early 2030s – a decade from now. If the supply chain, supported by industry and governments, spends this decade planning to scale as needed, then this challenge and its associated risk is manageable.”

The report says: “Keen observers are not used to optimism about fusion. Often, there’s a jaded pessimism that runs counter to the optimism expressed in this report. The fusion community’s antibodies against “overpromising” kick-in when the FIA and its members say that we can reach our timelines and goals. However, as governments and industry aim for these timelines, they will need to ensure that they are driving the investment and clear goals to bring along supply chain companies.”

FIA notes that government policymakers’ concerns about supply chains are not the same as business’ concerns. “In today’s age of ‘reshoring’ and ‘global strategic competition’ the free trade pronouncements of two decades ago look naive. It’s clear from other industries that, in an age of openness, some countries chose to expropriate technology, monopolise scarce resources, and develop subsidised supply chains. As countries work to build an integrated fusion energy supply chain, governments are applying recent lessons to try to build local, secure supply chains.

“However, any successful effort to commercialise fusion energy must reckon with the clear truth that fusion science is global, its supply chain is global, and the expertise has developed around the world. The FIA acknowledges that this first effort to quantify and analyse the fusion supply chain is limited in nature. Future work by the FIA and its members will include deeper dives into critical components, key technologies needed, or scientific uncertainties.”

Image courtesy of FIA