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Nuclear Fusion Patents Bring the Holy Grail Closer

16 Jan 2024

COP28, the recently concluded conference on climate change, has recognized nuclear fusion as a harbinger of new energy supply for nullifying, by 2050, the impact of climate change. Going forward, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has set up a World Nuclear Energy Group to explore successful utilization of energy produced by nuclear fusion.  

Engineering and technology innovations leading to commercial production and utilization of fusion occupy the centre stage in ongoing research and developments. Recent breakthroughs in diverse areas such as reactors, magnetic and inertial confinement systems and optical systems for heating plasma have converted hopes into optimism of the highest order for future generations. Nuclear fusion is emerging as an alternative to various energy supply systems for clean and carbon free energy. 

For billions of years, Earth has been a beneficiary of energy produced by the sun through nuclear fusion. The goal of nuclear fusion on Earth is to replicate the process by which the sun generates its energy. 

Global Patent Scenario 

Innovations in high technology are driven by patents in the area. Therefore, increase in patent filings acts as a yardstick for advancement in the technology progression. A study (by the author) reveals that the patent filings in the last 20 years (2002 to 2021) have grown by 8.8% per year on average; the last ten years have seen a CAGR of 10.1% in filings. The stage is populated by patents filings emerging from USA, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. Filings have been made by private industries, start-ups, academic and research institutions, and government funded agencies. It is observed that filings by the private sector constituted 57% of the filings by the top 30 filers across the world. The share of developing countries is quite low. 

International Cooperation 

Cooperation among nations in developing advance and complex technologies has become critical. The cooperation is enhanced by sharing of knowledge among nations. If handled properly, this would help shrink the development time from decades to a few years and make the optimum use of national funds.  

Around 50 countries are reported to have their own research programmes in nuclear fusion. There are bilateral cooperation arrangements along with multilateral arrangements for cooperation. Two multilateral arrangements namely International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and IAEA will play a key role in achieving the goal by guiding fusion research. At the same time considerable research is taking place outside these arrangements. ITER itself is engaged in developing thermonuclear reactor and its associated system.  

Being a member nation of ITER, allows a member to become an early beneficiary of global innovations driven by patents of partner countries and those generated under the ITER. At each of these levels, several patents would emerge along with considerable know-how. Sharing of IPRs and other knowledge can only be possible if the principle of mutuality, reciprocity, equity is followed. It would be judicious to bring to the common table background IPRs (patents) held by each player which may be benchmarked according to their relative importance. Foreground IPRs (patents) generated in the cooperative programs along with the background IPRs would impact transfer of technology to partner countries.  

Involving Private Sector 

There are presently 43 start-ups working in fusion technology research and development in addition to the work being done in large companies. According to the Fusion Industry Association, a private investment of around $6.2 billion has been pumped into fusion research. As private investments pour in, the chances of realising the optimism mentioned above is very high. 

The work being done in the private sector are based on the research at academic institutions and publicly funded agencies. Therefore, we expect a few hundred IPRs being generated all over the world. We expect several cooperations of all kinds among the players in the private sector, universities, and publicly funded agencies. Competition is a natural outcome when so many patents are produced and utilized. Also, this would lead to a complex supply chain of inventions (patents) essential for production of nuclear fusion.  

Evolving Regulatory Frameworks  

The high patent filings by the countries listed above is well supported by their laws which allow patenting of fusion related inventions. In fact, a few countries are on the path of expediting protection of research results. A new trend in these countries is to evolve regulatory frameworks for utilization of fusion energy.  

India has a sound base for fusion research. However, in view of global developments there is a need for revisiting patent laws, the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 and any other guidelines to promote inventions in this area by all including the private sector. We can then hope private sector investments in this amazing technology.  

Invention friendly laws and rules will help in achieving the principle of mutuality, reciprocity and equity in future agreements related to sharing of knowledge, technology, and engineering solutions. There are around 50 countries including India which have on-going research programmes in nuclear fusion. There is a sense of urgency in commercializing energy derived from nuclear fusion, necessitating the need to streamline processes and preparations. 

Perspective 

ITER is governed by a detailed IPR policy for guiding technology transfer from ITER. India stands a good chance of being an early beneficiary of the global innovation system, being a front-line player in the fusion technology due to its long experience in nuclear research. India’s gains could be uplifted with a strong IPR, especially patent portfolio. As a step in this direction tracking patents filed and granted in different jurisdictions and promoting research in fusion by all. Let us not miss the unique opportunity of being a leading partner in this journey.  

This article was contributed by Mr R Saha,  Senior Adviser – Technology & IPR, CII. Contact: raghav.saha@gmail.com