The European Union has been a firm supporter of Research & Development (R&D) not only because it generates new knowledge and stimulates innovation, but also because it has a direct impact on growth. In the case of fusion energy, we are building a community made of companies and research laboratories with the appropriate skills to respond to the needs of this new market. Since ITER came into the picture, there has been growing interest in mastering the technologies of the international experiment, which promises to deliver clean, safe and more sustainable energy for all.
With Europe’s contribution amounting to roughly 50%, there is a clear opportunity to transform our in-kind contribution into in-house expertise. But, can fusion know-how spill over into other areas? And if so, what could be the commercial potential? The first F4E Technology Transfer Award, launched early in the year, tried answering these questions by offering a reward of 10 000 EUR to the most promising breakthrough. The panel of experts overseeing this exercise was impressed with the overall quality of the applications, the range of technologies addressed and their long-term impact in markets beyond fusion. One of them stood out for its novelty and its commercial prospect—VAC-TRON, a Spanish SME, specialised in the field of hermetic interconnectors, received the award. We spoke to Franc Moreno, VAC-TRON Industrial Director, to hear his reaction to the news.
Q: Congratulations on receiving the first F4E Technology Transfer Award. Did you expect this result? How does it feel for someone not coming from the field of fusion to win this?
A: It is fair to say that we were all very happy and pleasantly surprised, to win this prize. First, as you rightly point out, we knew very little about the fusion community. In fact, our company has a track record in aeronautics, aerospace, gas meters, industrial sensors. It was only when IDOM approached us to develop the ITER feedthroughs— the connectors that carry the signals of sensors, which measure the temperature, irradiation, composition of the plasma, that we started getting familiar with this field. They asked for our help with the design of the connectors to ensure their operation in high-vacuum environments. Today, we are pleased to announce that the first prototypes have been successfully manufactured and they have the potential to be used in other markets. We may be new in the fusion family but this award demonstrates that there is room for all.
Q: Did you see the potential of this breakthrough when you started working on the connectors?
A: Actually, we did not. However, this is rather common. When you start working on a particular component your main objective is to produce it meeting the specifications. You spend hours working on the prototype without necessarily thinking if, and how, it can operate in another context. It is only later in the process that you start thinking how it can be applied in other domains. In our case, a client from the Oil and Gas industry got in touch with us to see if this connector could serve their needs and in fact, it did! In summer, we will sell the first piece for testing and towards the end of the year it will be certified.
Q: To what extent this know-how results from the contract awarded by F4E?
A: Undoubtedly, there is a clear link and in a way, things have come full circle. Let me explain why… Years ago, when a company, again from the Oil and Gas industry, contacted us to deliver something similar to this connector, we declined because we did not know if we could. Few years later, we received a call from IDOM explaining the kind of support they were after. Suddenly, we opened a door of possibilities and found ourselves working on this type of connector. Thanks to our involvement in Europe’s contribution to ITER, via F4E and the contract signed with IDOM, we now have proof that we can produce this piece of equipment. As a result, we formed a partnership with IDOM to access this market and by joining forces, we can capitalise on a collaboration that works, know-how that has been tested, a supply chain which delivers and a distribution channel which is large.
Q: What does this award mean to VAC-TRON?
A: Apart from the fact that it is a great honour to be the recipient of this award, it also has an important impact on the morale and reputation of our company. We are an SME that counts no more than 20 people, specialised in a field. Such awards feel like a pat on the back, making us feel more confident, increasing our appetite for risk. Timing also matters enormously. We have started to come out from a pandemic, which challenged profoundly the way we connect, collaborate, create and believe in ourselves. The award came to remind us that even during the most difficult times we are able to innovate and make great things. What we have developed is excellent, and it can be transferred in other areas. Perhaps what we lacked was assertiveness and exposure. Beyond the psychological boost, which matters enormously to the performance and well-being of staff, there are financial benefits down the road because our aim is to enter a market of high value.
After the award ceremony, we had the opportunity to speak with Johannes Schwemmer, the Director of Fusion for Energy, to hear his thoughts on this award and the impact of Europe’s contribution to ITER in industry. “I would like to congratulate VAC-TRON for winning F4E’s first Technology Transfer Award and wish them every success in transferring their know-how to different markets. They are testament to the fact that Europe’s contribution to ITER has an impact beyond the project. We promote innovation, collaboration and excellence in preparing European companies for tomorrow’s challenges, and VAC-TRON has demonstrated that they have these qualities today.”
We also spoke to Miguel Perez Lasala, F4E Diagnostics Project Officer, who has been following closely the contribution of VAC-TRON to the feedthroughs contact “It is great news for them but also for the field of Diagnostics. I believe it is well deserved, because we are very satisfied with their expertise and their commitment. Their success story shows how fusion can motivate engineers to innovate and have an impact in other industrial sectors.”
For those inspired by the VAC-TRON success story, there is another F4E award on the horizon, offering a unique opportunity to accelerate the technology transfer. A call for Fusion technology Transfer Demonstrator proposals is now open until 15 October 2021. A financial support of 35 000 EUR will be given to the best proposal in order to integrate fusion solutions in non-fusion applications.