From scientific breakthroughs to government initiatives on climate change to record-setting levels of funding, the topic of advancing nuclear fusion technology has never been hotter than it is right now.
The latest report from the Fusion Industry Association showed 43 fusion companies worldwide, including 25 in the United States.
Would you be surprised to know that three of those 25 are located within an hour’s drive of each other in the state of Wisconsin? SHINE, Realta Fusion and Type One Energy are among those 43 companies working to put clean, carbon-free fusion energy on the grid.
Why is Wisconsin such a hot bed for fusion technology? Representatives from those three companies – Ross Radel, Chief Technology Officer for SHINE; Cary Forest of Realta Fusion; and Chris Hegna of Type One Energy – convened July 18 for a panel discussion at the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Innovation Network luncheon.
Here are five reasons those fusion industry leaders discussed as to why Wisconsin is at fusion’s forefront:
Radel, Forest and Hegna all have strong ties to the University of Wisconsin, which boasts a strong nuclear program in general, and specifically a fusion program that is more than 50 years old.
In fact, SHINE was conceptualized by founder and CEO Greg Piefer while he was in graduate school at UW, and nearly 20% of SHINE’s roughly 370 employees hold a degree from UW-Madison.
“Greg and I were in grad school in the nuclear program … and he founded SHINE with a little bit different pathway (than other fusion companies) back in 2005,” Radel said. “We weren’t thinking about energy at that point, necessarily, but the sustainable pathway to get to energy.”
Realta was founded in 2022 when it spun out of a $10 million ARPA-E project at UW that was led by Forest. Type One Energy was founded in 2019 when it was spun out of UW by a couple of faculty members, including Hegna, in 2019.
“They (the three Wisconsin fusion companies) are all a product of UW-Madison, which has a historical strength in fusion technology and energy,” Hegna said. “Our first PhD in fusion research was in the early 60s. We’ve collectively produced, I think, something like 500 PhDs in fusion technology over the last several decades.”
Earlier this year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission laid out a more definitive plan as to how it will regulate fusion facilities. There are also regulations at the state level, and SHINE’s efforts over the years have laid a strong foundation for fusion companies working with authorities in the state of Wisconsin.
“SHINE is running tritium (fusion) systems today – at much lower levels than what a fusion power plant would be,” Radel said. “But it’s the same sort of rules and experience in terms of building up the safety case and licensing with the State of Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin is probably one of a handful of leading states in terms of the regulator having experience with fusion systems.”
“SHINE has been amazing for that,” Forest said.
The FIA reported that funding for fusion companies now sits at $6.2 billion, with $5.9 billion of coming by way of private investment.
The three fusion companies from Wisconsin reported combined total funding of nearly $750 million, with SHINE leading the way at $700 million. Much of that funding, especially early on for all three companies, came thanks to the support of local private investors, the panelists said.
“We have the big national news of continuing breakthroughs,” Radel said. “And even though the National Ignition Facility technology has no, to my knowledge, direct tie-in to any of these three (Wisconsin) companies … it gets people’s attention and makes it clear that there are mechanisms that can get there.”
That three companies in the state are working on fusion is great. But those companies are also going to need partners to help build their facilities and to supply specialized parts and materials. Wisconsin and the Midwest region are in good shape there, too, according to the panel.
“Wisconsin’s in a great position to make things for the fusion industry,” Forest said. “We’ve had some initiatives come out of our collection of state and government and companies to build a fusion triangle here in the Midwest, which would be a consortium of industry and community groups to support fusion going forward. We like to be building things; additive manufacturing and big construction is something we’re good at. And we also have scientific workers, so those seem like great partners.”
While debate continues over just how soon cost-effective fusion energy will be put on the grid, Wisconsin is unique in being able to say it has a company commercializing fusion through various applications outside of energy today.
SHINE continues down its four-phased pathway that currently includes inspecting industrial components and producing medical isotopes. We plan to scale these capabilities to recycle nuclear waste on the way to generating clean, cost-effective fusion energy to the grid.
“Ultimately, our goal is all the same, it’s sort of this holy grail,” Radel said of fusion energy. “As we kind of keep making these stepping stones and getting more and more fusion to happen, we want to be moving toward that same goal.”