Public–private partnerships (PPPs) are highly recommended as a means of rapidly and efficiently enhancing scientific and technological capabilities. Both general and fusion-specific plasma science and technology programs will benefit from robust PPPs. Scientific insights gained from basic and applied plasma science research lead to innovations that ultimately are developed into technologies in partnership with industry. Strategic PPPs can be effective in resolving common technical problems that face fusion and plasma science, in creating a competitive energy source in the US market, and in developing technologies that use plasma processes. Because the nature and missions of the private companies in basic plasma science and fusion energy development differ, and the breadth and maturity of existing PPP programs also differ, the PPP mechanisms for each area are described separately.
Fusion Science and Technology
There is broad agreement across stakeholders that having commercial fusion energy generation developed and based in the US is in the best interest of the DOE and the nation. The fusion energy endeavor is receiving from private entities new and significant contributions intended to address the clean energy market. Currently 22 private entities have raised nearly $2 billion in private capital to develop fusion energy concepts, with some targeting commercialization by the 2030s. Partnership between the public program and private activities can be effective in resolving common technical problems facing fusion as a competitive energy source. Although public and private strategies differ in technical focus and deliverables, significant overlaps exist that are beneficial to both parties and can accelerate progress toward the common goal of bringing fusion power to the grid.
Many private fusion companies are preparing to build facilities to demonstrate that their technologies scale, can be integrated, and can produce fusion-powerrelevant plasmas. Examples include burning plasma facilities, next-generation spherical tokamaks, high-temperature field-reversed configurations, high-current pinches, compact stellarators, spheromaks, converging plasmas, impactors, and laser-driven IFE ignition, all aiming toward design of full-scale power plants. International competitiveness is an important consideration in the identification of possible PPP programs, given that the UK, Europe, China, and other countries are supporting development of their burgeoning domestic fusion industries. An Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) report describing the responsibility of government and industry in the development of fission nuclear power highlighted two salient points: 1) the significant scope of shared partnership and responsibility between government and industry in establishing a new type of energy generation technology, and 2) the gradual transition from governmentled to industry-led activities approaching and realizing commercialization.
Candidate PPP programs can take different forms based on the maturity and mission of the technology and on the capital required. The DOE currently has PPP programs to aid in the maturation of low-technology-readiness-level (TRL) technologies and is considering other programs, including a milestone-based cost-share program to demonstrate fully integrated mid-TRL technologies. With 22 members of the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) engaged in at least one of the strategic objectives or program recommendations from the CPP report, there exists significant potential for partnership with the public program to close gaps in those technical areas.
Low-TRL Maturation Programs: Existing technology maturation programs have been successful and should be expanded to enhance the scope and scale for closure of key technology gaps. Examples are ARPA-E ALPHA, ARPA-E BETHE, ARPA-E/FES GAMOW, INFUSE, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR). These were established both to help refine specific private-industry fusion-energy concepts and to develop platform technologies that would be useful across many fusion-energy concepts. High interest from the private sector in programs like INFUSE has been evident: Many more applications from private companies were received than could be funded. Given industry demand, additional resources in these programs would enable private fusion activities to grow and even accelerate.
ARPA-E ALPHA creates tools to develop lower cost pathways to fusion energy
ARPA-E BETHE delivers more advanced, lower-cost fusion technologies through concept development of less advanced concepts, component development of mature concepts, and capability teams to accelerate development of all concepts
ARPA-E/FES GAMOW prioritizes R&D in technologies among fusion plasma/balance of plant, high-duty cycle drivers, and cross-cutting areas such as materials and additive manufacturing
INFUSE accelerates fusion energy development in the private sector by reducing impediments to collaboration involving the expertise and resources available at DOE laboratories
SBIR/STTR develops innovative techniques, instrumentation, and concepts that have applications to industries in the private sector
As the possibility for commercialization grows, partnerships in which industry may bear a greater burden of the cost become advantageous. Completion of prototype products can be done more quickly as private companies driven by market needs focus on efficient product delivery. A milestone-based 50/50 cost-share program should be created for partnerships to develop enabling technologies that are larger scale than projects funded through INFUSE, ARPA-E, and SBIR/STTR. Such a program could focus on the development of specific components or enabling technology for the fusion program. Examples could include magnets, high-power microwave and radiofrequency sources, neutron sources for materials irradiation, systems for tritium breeding blankets and tritium processing, and plasma-facing components. Some of these technologies could have applicability beyond fusion. Superconducting magnets and cables, for example, have broad commercial applicability in fields such as energy transmission and medical imaging. A cooling technology that can demonstrate power handling of greater than 10 MW/m2, which is needed for tokamak divertors, may also be applicable to applications such as energy concentration for high-energy particle accelerators or heat removal from advanced semiconductors.
Integrated Facility Cost-Share Program: We support the concept of a milestonebased cost-share program that can demonstrate integrated facilities having the potential to more rapidly and cost-effectively close technological gaps in order to achieve fusion energy. Such an activity should be executed as a parallel investment to augment the public long-range plan. This approach would maintain a robust strategy in the federal program while supporting high-risk, high-reward private industry efforts to allow multiple shots on goal in the effort to develop fusion energy.
An example of a new fusion-centered program with private industry was recently proposed by the FIA; it sought near-term investment in order to be relevant for current commercial timelines. The program is based on the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) cost-share program. That program, centered on a partnership in which private industry took over more routine operations in low-Earth orbit, proved successful in delivering a space launch vehicle at about 90% lower cost than the public program. Although NASA knew how to accomplish launches to low-Earth orbit, industry innovated with technologies and approaches that demonstrated more cost-effective solutions. Due to the success of the program, that approach is being applied by NASA and other agencies to lower TRL technologies. In the FIA-proposed fusion program, DOE would leverage private-sector creativity to develop new US-based capabilities that would enable fusion commercialization and research access to new user facilities. The program would be driven by market needs and would leverage the focus of private companies for fast and efficient product delivery. Each private-sector participant would meet the milestones agreed upon with DOE to receive the public funds in a proposed 50/50 cost-share agreement. The program would follow a portfolio approach that has multiple awardees in a competitive process. Details should be worked out between DOE and industry stakeholders so that programs could begin as soon as possible.
Facility Development and Shared Programs: The FST program needs experimental facilities that can close the program gaps in a timely fashion and private entities that can help where mutually beneficial activities are identified. Including privatesector input in the design of these facilities has the potential to reduce both costs and development time through private-sector efficiencies. DOE can also look to other PPP models, such as the approach utilized for the DOE Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. In addition, shared access to operating public and private-sector facilities can be an efficient method to close technical gaps of mutual interest. Generally speaking, the public program should seek to procure available capabilities and equipment from the private sector.
Information Access: To best equip the public and private sectors for success, FES-funded programs should share information between parties. A pathway for information transfer from public to private partners should exist for public programs. For example, access to ITER design information should be provided to US-based companies by FES. This access will help leverage the investments and technological developments that are occurring and maximize the US investment in ITER. Similar responsibilities lie with private entities that participate in PPPs. Clear delineation of intellectual property protection should occur as programs are formed, with the expectation that progress, milestones, and discoveries will be shared whenever possible. Coordination of efforts among all parties might best be made by consolidation within the FPP preconceptual design effort to minimize duplication of effort and advance the pace of discovery.
Mature Stage Programs: New PPP programs to further aid in the commercialization of fusion energy should be considered. The most aggressive private industry plans seek to put fusion power on the grid in the early 2030s. If these companies succeed, mature stage PPP programs will be needed in advance of groundbreaking for the power-producing facilities, which could occur as soon as the mid to late 2020s, which is within the time frame of this strategic plan. For example, loan guarantee programs have been used to help deploy several successful large-scale energy projects through the DOE Loan Programs Office. DOE could also consider the development of a long-term power purchase agreement program, which would simplify financing for future private-sector fusion power facilities.
Plasma Science and Technology
Basic plasma science research discoveries can lead to innovations that allow US industries to maintain global leadership in their fields. Historically, insight gained from basic plasma science has led to many societally important contributions. Plasma accelerators offer practical applications for cancer treatment and diagnostic imaging. Atmospheric pressure plasmas transfer green-energy-derived electricity to electrons and ions in gas or liquid phase for chemical processing, treatment of disease, water and air purification, material processing, and light production. Advances in low-pressure multifrequency RF discharge technology can position US industry to maintain leadership in semiconductor manufacturing.
The semiconductor industry is an instructive example of how partnerships between universities, government, and industry can come together to successfully revitalize a field. Such a partnership enabled plasma science to play a key role in US semiconductor device processing. In the 1980s, the US had fallen behind in semiconductor manufacturing. The establishment of the Sematech consortium, a partnership of 14 US semiconductor companies and the federal government, focused on improving manufacturing capability. The consortium allowed the US to reclaim its leadership role, and the semiconductor industry now holds nearly 50% of the global market share.
An ecosystem that provides a pathway for forming partnerships with industry to develop and share plasma science innovations does not exist beyond the DOE SBIR/STTR program. Vehicles that facilitate such partnerships are necessary for continued innovation by bridging the gap between science discovery and the formation of new technologies. Such partnerships also allow for the resolution of ongoing and arising engineering problems in industry through applied research. The need for PPPs in the semiconductor arena in particular was highlighted in the 2020 decadal study, which suggested that a private-public incubator be established that prioritized research focused on breakthroughs in the 5 to 10-year time frame to strengthen US leadership in this trillion-dollar market. This incubator would involve collaborative activity between academia, startups, and established companies, with the end goal of advancing research and disruptive breakthroughs for the purpose of commercialization.
Shared Research Programs: Research consortia that bring together public and private sectors to solve common technical problems should be encouraged. Currently, we stand at the threshold of an exciting era in plasma science and technology in which fusion and plasma research offer potentially transformative applications. With the growth of industrial applications, the potential for research consortia increases, as does the likelihood of problem-solving partnerships between private companies and universities. With Sematech as the exemplar, new areas for collaboration abound:
Control of atmospheric pressure plasmas for chemical processing, the treatment of disease, water and air purification, and light production
Advances in low-pressure plasma discharges to improve semiconductor manufacturing
Plasma accelerators that offer practical applications for cancer treatment and diagnostic imaging
Questions raised in private industry that are fundamental and not aligned with commercial goals are often left unanswered. Researchers in universities are well suited to address foundational issues that may not have immediate applicability to a particular company. By pooling resources, public–private consortia can share the burden and reward.
Shared research programs can also shepherd scientific discoveries derived from FES-funded research to technological implementation, either through start-ups or licensing. The model suggested here is akin to that utilized in the NSF. The NSF Partnership in Innovation program provides a funding vehicle for single investigators to carry out customer discovery and develop technology based on prior research. Such programs provide a framework for partnering researchers with interested industrial entities.
Additionally, the current FES SBIR/STTR program should be leveraged to better align with mission goals. FES should convene a community workshop that brings together universities, national laboratories, and the private sector to outline research needs in order to focus the program on market-driven technologies. Thus the program is responsive to new developments and opportunities. This approach is in contrast to the current approach where SBIR/STTR grants and contracts are awarded separately from FES priorities.
To maintain competitiveness a framework is required that facilitates the transfer of technology derived from DOE-funded PST research into innovations that will benefit society. We propose that the recommended newly established PST program contain vehicles that support PPP options, including single investigator innovation development and partnering with industry to address technical challenges that affect overall US global leadership.
Development of public–private partnerships is recommended as a new paradigm for appropriately chosen program elements. To maintain and enhance competitiveness, a clear framework is required in order to facilitate developing FES-funded research into innovations that will benefit society. The programs described above have been demonstrably successful and should be implemented within FES. Initiatives are proposed to leverage shared public – private interests for maximal mutual benefit. Appropriate resources should be provided for these programs so that strong partnerships can be established. Sharing information on an annual or biennial basis is important so that public programs remain adaptable and private programs can benefit from public accomplishments. Growth of PPP programs will encourage the public and private sectors to work closely to more rapidly develop fusion energy and plasma technologies for the betterment of the US and the world.