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Interview with UKAEA’s new Fusion Technology Cluster Development Manager, Valerie Jamieson.

The rapid growth of fusion research in the UK can be seen in the increasing number of private companies attempting to fuse atoms together for energy production.

Commercial fusion is a challenge that demands collaboration – and is the reason behind the UK’s newly created Fusion Technology Cluster.

Valerie Jamieson joined UKAEA in August this year in a newly created role – that of Fusion Technology Cluster Development Manager. She joined from New Scientist – her place of employment for nearly two decades, and one where she had helped to launch the New Scientist Live event amongst other things.

She will be chairing a panel discussion on the fusion cluster at the IF Oxford Science & Ideas Festival on Thursday 14 October at 6.30pm, featuring speakers from UKAEA and other UK fusion research outfits.

Positive momentum

Valerie Jamieson

Valerie Jamieson

So what attracted her to the role at UKAEA? It appears the pace of fusion development was a key driver.

“The fusion landscape has changed completely – and in quite a short space of time,” Valerie said. “We’ve seen advances in materials and in high-temperature superconductors, as well as in computing capabilities. That joke about fusion always being 30 years away has just been blown out of the water. The fusion environment has positive momentum, and joining UKAEA is proving to be an exciting moment for me.”

When we think of clusters, we may think of perhaps the most successful and best-known example, that of Silicon Valley. But what might a fusion cluster look like?

“With a growing number of private fusion companies, research at universities and at UKAEA, the UK has a thriving fusion energy scene. There’s nowhere like it on the planet,” said Valerie. “A cluster helps these organisations collaborate more easily.”

Exchanging knowledge and ideas

She adds that the cluster isn’t limited to just other fusion companies. “It’s a lot more holistic than that and looks at all the technologies that make fusion happen. For example, Tokamak Energy based their research on superconducting materials – but they are also applicable in fields such as medical imaging and scanners. So, a medical magnets company may want to set up in the same area and work alongside a fusion organisation in this research. The cluster is all about exchanging knowledge and ideas.”

There are other obvious examples of potential collaboration. We think of the supercomputers used by engineers at UKAEA, ones which crunch numbers and simulate complex plasma scenarios. Or perhaps the robotics developed during the lifetime of JET as remote maintenance is carried out. These have implications in a whole range of applications, from weather forecasting to nuclear decommissioning.

“Some of the applications we see today actually originated in nuclear handling – for example surgical robots. We think about some of the expertise UKAEA has acquired in areas like handling tritium, and then we think about how the UK wants to transition to a ‘hydrogen economy’. There will be big players in that industry which could help us in our fusion research. It’s all mutually beneficial.

“That joke about fusion always being 30 years away has just been blown out of the water.”

“The concept of a cluster per se is not a new one, but is something different for fusion.

“Harwell has three clusters, with the biggest one the space cluster. That has grown from a handful of companies to nearly 200 companies all now engaged in space research. You extrapolate this to fusion technology, and you could see the same effect happening over the next few years.”

Earlier this year, the Canadian company General Fusion announced plans to build a test facility at Culham, while there are already many existing partnerships with private fusion ventures in the UK.

Great inventions

Valerie – whose PhD was in Elementary Particle Physics – stated that some of society’s greatest inventions stem from the work of clusters.

“I looked at some research on technology clusters in the United States and it found that 70 per cent of patents in computer science had been produced within technology clusters. So, without that, some inventions may never have happened. Clusters help impact the economy and are greater than the sum of their parts.”

So how do you go about growing a fusion cluster? And how might it look in five years?

“We will establish an advisory board to help shape the vision we have – we are working on a roadmap and a business plan. There is already so much momentum.

“The attraction for me coming to UKAEA is helping to develop a cluster in some of the world’s most interesting and exciting science. We desperately need fusion to work – and soon!”

Book tickets for the IF Oxford fusion cluster panel discussion at https://if-oxford.com/event/oxfordshire-a-stellar-cluster-for-developing-fusion-energy/.

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