Where the US Stands in the Race for Fusion
In light of Lawrence Livermore National Lab achieving a groundbreaking milestone in nuclear fusion, we took a look at the global IP landscape for nuclear fusion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chinese organizations (primarily Universities and Government Labs) account for greatest VOLUME of IP generation.
However, a closer look at intellectual capital QUALITY tells a different story. To approximate quality, we focus on an invention's position in global citation networks over time. After accounting for things like age, geographic focus, and the fact that niche areas of fusion technology may have different citation patterns, it became clear that the US, UK, France, and Canada account for the majority of high quality IP generation, whereas Chinese IP (at least by our approximation), lagged in quality.
One distinct difference between the two countries is IP source. Nearly 70% of US Nuclear Fusion IP development originated from companies, compared to 20% in China. Corporate patents do generally rank higher than research institution patents on quantitative quality metrics - the anecdotal rationale being that companies can have more rigorous go/no-go evaluation processes and invest more in developing families of patents. However, this dynamics doesn't account for the entire quality gap. The quality of Nuclear Fusion IP developed by US Research Institutions is almost 20% higher than IP developed by their Chinese counterparts. The reasons for this delta in quality extend far beyond the Fusion space and will be discussed in a subsequent article. Beyond systematic issues with Chinese Research Institution IP generation, IP generated by US labs - Lawrence Livermore in particular - is particularly high quality.
Leading US IP Generators
In addition to Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), other DOE labs like Sandia, Argonne, and Jefferson labs have developed portfolios of fusion IP. Interestingly, the Naval Research Lab has also invested in fusion research that has le to meaningful IP generation. In addition to US National Labs, US Universities - in particular the UC System, MIT, and Princeton, have been active participants in fusion research.
Outside of research institutions, Alpha Ring and TAE Technologies have dedicated significant resources to nuclear fusion R&D and have developed substantial IP portfolios. Interestingly, industrials companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger that often operate in austere conditions have also patented enabling technologies that are relevant to the fusion space
Nuclear Fusion Technology
The majority of Nuclear Fusion IP generation has focused on the reactor structure itself, specifically tokamak reactors that use magnetic fields to confine plasma within a donut-shaped structure. Outside of reactor design, technologies for heating plasma to the roughly 130 Million degrees Celsius required for fusion account for significant IP generation. This includes the laser-based ignition approach used by LLNL. While other reactor components such as blankets, power supplies, etc. account for less IP volume, IP generation in these areas has been growing as research pivots from broad reactor design to the operational details of starting and maintaining a reaction.
Why it matters
The US government and private companies have invested over $100B in nuclear fusion to date, and investment will likely continue to grow - particularly with achievements like LLNL's creating optimism around the eventual viability of fusion. Understanding which labs and companies are making large bets on fusion R&D, as well as were there are still gaps, is critical for investors and policymakers. Given the level of complexity involved in fusion, identifying areas where existing technology developed for other use-case (e.g., deep-sea drilling) will also help accelerate commercialization.
Tradespace provides a data platform and managed technology scouting to help companies and investors understand emerging technology landscapes like fusion, identify potential partners, and source external technologies. For more information on our IP Intelligence Platform and our managed technology scouting contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.