A special partnership to fast-track fusion – UKAEA and Novatron Fusion Group stage London announcement

Energize Editors

Energize Editors

A special partnership between The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) – the UK’s national fusion energy laboratory – and Novatron Fusion Group is now firmly underway.

It follows a landmark Memorandum of Understanding signed earlier this year, described as the ‘embodiment’ of the UK and Sweden’s broader Strategic Partnership, expanding cooperation on science and innovation, energy, trade and security and defence.

Signed by Swedish and UK Governments in October 2023 – both nations have committed to ‘exploring opportunities for collaboration on fusion energy’ noting the emerging technology’s ‘importance for long-term sustainable energy supply”.

Key players behind the MoU gathered at the London Residence of the Swedish Ambassador on May 30 discussing importance of international collaboration in the quest for fusion energy.

Speaking during a panel discussion Tim Bestwick, UKAEA Chief Development Officer (CDO) and Deputy CEO, said: “The UKAEA sounds like it does all things atomic, but actually we just focus on fusion. We hosted the large European fusion experiment JET which ran for a magnificent 40 years, until we finished experimental operations last year. That has kept us at the centre of many collaborations in the fusion field. We don’t need to just research fusion, we need fusion energy to keep the lights on. It’s part of our role in UKAEA to support all endeavours in fusion which will deliver this important energy source and we are delighted to be working with Novatron Fusion Group.”

The UKAEA is currently implementing the UK’s £650 million Fusion Futures Programme, to support the UK Fusion Strategy. The Programme entails establishing new facilities at UKAEA’s Culham Campus in Oxfordshire to facilitate the advancement of new technologies and expand fusion fuel cycle capabilities. The Programme aims to foster world-leading innovation while also stimulating general industry capacity through international collaboration and the development of future fusion powerplants.

UKAEA undertakes cutting edge work with academia, other research organisations and the industrial supply chain in a wide spectrum of areas, including robotics and materials. Operating as an executive non-departmental public body, UKAEA is sponsored by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

Speaking about the MoU, Novatron Fusion Group’s CEO Peter Roos said the UKEAE offered a wealth of experience with 40 years at the vanguard of fusion energy: “All the obstacles, challenges, bumps on the road – those are the experiences which have elevated UKAEA to a level it operates at today. It is on top of so many technologies which are of value to any fusion initiative you can find in the world. In the future I see many interconnections between companies where UKAEA is the ‘bumblebee’ moving from flower to flower, connecting the dots, making sure technologies are elevated but also where consolidation is required. From Novatron Fusion Group’s perspective there are some really interesting technology areas where we need immediate support, and this collaboration with UKAEA will shorten the time, de-risk the work and lower the cost. It’s also a pre-cursor to a deeper collaboration.”

‘Focus’ versus ‘early opportunity’

An ongoing debate in fusion energy revolves around ‘focus versus early opportunity’. Some investors support fusion companies branching into new fields and taking ‘early wins’ elsewhere, while other investors feel fusion developers should keep their eyes firmly focused on the long-term prize.

Sweden’s Venture Capital Fund Industrifonden is an early-stage backer of Novatron Fusion Group. It manages more than SEK 5 billion, investing in early-stage companies, from seed to A-round funding. Its focus includes specialized technologies and businesses within Deep Tech, Life Science, and Transformative Tech.

Speaking on the panel Industrifonden Investment Manager Mala Valroy said: “Today is monumental for me to witness as an investor. What was a blip on a PowerPoint presentation is now an MoU that will go forward. It’s exactly the kind of cross pollination and collaboration required. The entire energy transition is incredibly expensive because we are building ‘first of a kind technology’ across the board. Climate change will not be solved by an App. Private investors need to lean into that. Public funding also needs to lean in and make this journey possible of the entrepreneurs. You cannot dilute founders’ equity to nothing, you need public funding and space for experimentation which isn’t research in the lab. I am the strongest advocate for international collaboration. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum; progress does not happen in isolation.

Mala added that the fusion market will likely consolidate and explained the value of investing in science-backed technologies with unique or synergetic properties in that post consolidated market.

“We loved that Novatron Fusion Group was especially focusing its design on lowering the cost of energy. For us we are looking at a future grid which cannot have any fossil fuel components, so the baseload needs to be commercially viable with what we see in progress with renewables. We have a Nordic mandate, and very proud to be one of Novatron Fusion Group’s earlier backers.”

The Missing Link

The Novatron is the world’s only stable mirror-machine concept, and the only mirror machine-concept in Europe.

It offers a stable magnetic plasma confinement solution through unique geometry, enabling the use of traditional copper coils to generate powerful magnetic fields. Engineers recently completed a complex multi-system integration project to create plasma, marking a Scandinavian first and raising ambitions for the Nordics’ fusion energy sector.

The result was delivered on the first attempt via the firm’s X0 experimental test rig at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. It marks a rapid ascent for Novatron Fusion Group which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary in December 2023, and plans to launch its first official test facility – the N1 by summer 2024.

Novatron CEO Peter Roos added: “Many fusion solutions today are inherently unstable by design. This doesn’t mean dangerous, just unstable in the sense the fusion process collapses and stops so there is no continuous process. If you can create conditions to allow the process to be self-stabilising then you have the possibility to nourish the process with fuel and the necessary amount of heat so that things become simplified, and you have a better foundation to build your house, or fusion reactor.

“This is what happened for Novatron Fusion Group. Our inventor Jan Jäderberg finally found a way to design a magnetic field which would fulfil the constraints to host fusion plasma in a stable way. He presented his theory to scientists at the Royal University of Technology in Sweden. They couldn’t find any flaws in the calculations and advised him to speak with the number one guy in the field – Professor Kenneth Fowler in the US, a prominent professor at Berkley and MIT. Professor Fowler concluded by stating the Novatron concept appeared to be the missing link and suggested we start building a real fusion power plant right away.”

Power to the Grid

Just days ago, Novatron Fusion Group joined an historic Public-Private sector gathering at ITER, south France – the largest international fusion project in the world. More than 350 delegates, including representatives from more than 30 private sector fusion start-ups, converged for the 3-day event to discuss achievements, challenges, and ideas for ITER to support fusion initiatives.

Over time, the ambition is for this collaboration to lead to a “joint public-private narrative”—and, more importantly, a cross-sector approach to fusion innovation—in which the breakdown of information silos and the consolidation of knowledge can drive success.

“The gathering was designed to see how ITER could support private fusion initiatives, and how we can shorten the timeline,” added Peter Roos. “There are some obvious areas – materials, physics, managing fuel cycles. We had very productive meetings and reports from the workshop.”

Tim Bestwick added: “For a long time fusion looked like an interesting curiosity, and we were all fine burning cheap gas. Now there are a good couple of reasons why we don’t want to do that. The motivation has completed changed. The greatest change is the widespread realisation that we need an energy system with the attributes of fusion to decarbonise our energy system. The world has proved time and time again, it can produce the most extra ordinary innovations when the need is there. Fusion enters that category. It will probably not be one organisation – a collection of organisations will crack fusion. It will be delivered, we will put it into production, scale it up and it will meet a real energy need.”

The EU Fusion Blueprint

Novatron Fusion Group also recently joined EU leaders and key fusion energy stakeholders in Strasbourg to help direct the “EU Blueprint for Fusion Energy”. Discussions held at the back end of April, by the European Commission General Directorate for Energy, involved Commissioner Kadri Simson and vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

Attendees included fusion organisations, nuclear safety regulators and fusion start-ups from the EU, US and UK. The International Atomic Energy Agency also contributed and for the first time, the European Investment Bank participated in a fusion conference – providing a clear reflection of the shift from research to business underway.

“European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently delivered a bold statement that the EU is leading the way with fusion,” added Peter Roos. “What she was really doing was underlining the importance of fusion. This will become not only a matter of resilience and security but also geopolitics reshaping the world map. There are many different dimensions to consider. We tend to convert things into euros, dollars and pounds, but there’s more to it than that. This is about commitment and saying there is no other way – we shall do fusion. There is a positive message here for future generations. Fusion will be of essence and there will be great opportunities, which make a difference for humanity.”

National fusion strategies, International Collaboration and Academia

With Sweden proudly sitting at the helm of the global cleantech capitals (per capita of unicorns) Industrifonden’s Mala Valroy explained how national strategies should ideally run in tandem with international collaboration efforts. “We are proud of our cleantech legacy in Sweden and we are trying to understand how to nurture this. Financing is one side but we would love to see a clear national strategy articulated. We are well positioned to support that, and I don’t believe its mutually exclusive from international collaboration. If anything, I believe it puts us into a position to contribute and work cohesively.”

Tim Bestwick added that the strength of UKAEA’s heritage was partly forged by international collaboration. “International collaborations are historically what fusion was founded on – that will continue. Whilst there is now an increasing private sector and investors, and a competitive element, that really is an overlay on that bedrock of collaboration which is needed to address all the technical challenges we have to crack.”

Commenting on Academia element, Peter Roos added: Connection to academia is of utmost importance, providing research and resource to dig into the really tricky parts, and also supply experience from the past, because so much has already been done. In Novatron Fusion Group’s case, our invention is not based on research from a university, so it’s crucial to have an institution like the Royal University of Technology in Stockholm supporting us, investing in us and hosting our first machine on their premises. This provide the credibility to reach the organisations we need to collaborate with.”

Future of Fusion

As a result of the MoU, Novatron Fusion Group has already welcomed a member of UKAEA’s scientific team. Work has centred around Langmuir Probes – a device used to determine electron temperature, electron density and electric potential of plasma – a complicated but crucial element of the fusion process.

With progress accelerating Peter Roos explained what lies ahead: “We are now assembling our first machine. This is not a fusion reactor but a plasma experiment to validate control of plasma in the way we have theorised. It will be assembled in the summer with experiments starting in Autumn. In one year we will have the results from our experiments, which could provide the missing piece of the puzzle, demonstrating how to confine fusion plasma in a magnetic field. We are also on the way with Novatron 2, a larger more complex machine, which will address the last remaining technology areas where we need new capabilities. This will allow us to develop the first reactor based on Novatron’s concepts.”

In the coming years, Mala Valroy expects to see enormous cross pollination of technologies. “The fusion technology we are talking about has ripple effects that goes well beyond power to the grid. The future I hope with my VC crystal ball is a ‘many of a kind’ future. I see a strong role for renewables, and I don’t see it as a zero-sum conversation where you have to choose either or. We will have decoupled progress from fossil fuels where fusion will be the baseload and possibly the main power in some countries.”

Tim Bestwick concluded: “The mist is clearing. One way or other routes will be found, and we will have a prototype fusion power plant. My guess is there will be more than one route and the different technical forms of delivering fusion will address different parts of the energy market. If we are successful in this quest, and we expect to be, bringing on a new major energy source will have substantial geopolitical impacts in a way we have not yet conceived.”

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