By Tom Still

Inside-WIMILWAUKEE, Wis. – Even a casual observer of the Wisconsin economy can name some nationally prominent sectors, such as manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. Others can go deeper and list medical and scientific instruments, health information software, paper, plastics and parts produced for the automotive industry.

Not many would mention a budding, longer-range contender for that list: fusion energy and its supply chain.

Still years if not decades away from powering a cleaner economy, fusion is a nuclear reaction that occurs when two or more small atomic nuclei (think hydrogen and helium) join to form a larger nucleus. This energy-releasing process occurs naturally in the sun and other stars. Scientists have theorized how to harness fusion for nearly 100 years and made steady progress since, but the first controlled experiment to create more energy than it used didn’t occur until December 2022.

That “breakeven” experiment, which in how scientists refer to energy input versus output, more than broke even. It was a sizable, short-lived energy gain led by U.S. scientists that proved hot fusion plasma – which is partially ionized gas – can be confined to create fusion conditions.

Now, the race is on. There are 43 known fusion companies worldwide and 25 in the United States, with three in Wisconsin: Realta Fusion, Type One Energy and SHINE Technologies, each in different stages of development. Worldwide, about $6 billion in private investment has gone into 30 fusion startups in the past five years, not to mention major public investments in many countries.

One significant Wisconsin advantage is the brainpower it has produced over time in fusion research, which helps to explain why three of those 25 U.S. startups are in the state and why others could emerge or be attracted here.

The UW-Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute lists 167 Ph.D. graduates and is the largest program in the United States for advanced degrees in fusion engineering. Since 1965, the university has produced more than 400 graduates overall in fields such as plasma experimental, plasma theory and fusion technology.

“I came to Madison because of its nuclear energy programs,” said Oliver Schmitz, a Germany native who is the associate dean of research innovation in the UW-Madison College of Engineering. “Whenever I travel to fusion events elsewhere, it seems like 80% of the participants are UW-Madison graduates.”

Schmitz spoke Tuesday to the Wisconsin Technology Council, not to predict commercial fusion is just around the corner, but to emphasize the state has competitive advantages that should be levered soon to build a more robust industry. He listed:

  • Building on existing strengths in manufacturing, as most fusion generators are massive machines;
  • Tapping into the state’s world-class expertise in advanced data controls;
  • Repurposing current electric generation sites such as coal plants to take advantage of existing transmission grid infrastructure;
  • Gearing up education programs in technical colleges, four-year colleges and other trade schools for jobs that will be created.

Another prime area is materials development, as the fusion generators of the future must withstand constant neutron bombardment from within to hold up over time. Again, that’s an area where existing Wisconsin firms and researchers can contribute.

Estimates of the size of the nuclear fusion market vary, but most analysts predict steady if not sharp growth as the world searches for clean energy options. Private investment in the fusion market may not pour into commercial facilities right away because they’re too many years away. But dollars may be attracted to “supply chain” investments and other staged commercial investments, which has been the approach followed by SHINE Technologies in Janesville.

Can Wisconsin make a modest investment in an industry that already has a foothold and a history in the state? Patience will be required, but the payoff could be enormous.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at