by Tony Donné, EUROfusion Programme Manager
Before the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme, European fusion research was coordinated in a limited number of areas, with the Joint European Torus (JET) as the only common facility. Each country had its own plan and priorities, and often also its own research facilities that were mostly nationally exploited. Although there was a common goal – to achieve fusion electricity – all countries had different approaches and often focused only on a limited number of aspects.
Two important actions taken at the start of Horizon 2020 have drastically improved the coherence of the programme and have turned European fusion research into a focused and goal-oriented activity.
First, 29 national institutes from 27 different countries established the EUROfusion consortium, with a central programme management unit. In 2017, Ukraine joined as 30th member.
Second, the European Research Roadmap to the Realisation of Fusion Energy was drafted, with the ambition to realise fusion electricity by the middle of this century.
EUROfusion is a big leap forward in making fusion research in Europe more focused and goal-oriented. The system of loosely coupled national research programmes during the previous European Framework Programme has been transformed into one of the most coherent, geographically distributed, European research programmes.
Strictly based on the specifications of the roadmap, EUROfusion defines its research priorities and co-funds research programmes. Under co-funding, consortium members contribute about fifty percent while Euratom directly funds the second half. Co-funding has proven to be very successful in aligning national programmes to the roadmap.
The detailed work programme is jointly defined by the best scientists across labs in Europe and makes optimum use of research facilities to maximise output. EUROfusion organises experimental campaigns at the national facilities and also helps researchers use facilities located elsewhere around the world. By combining the specific strengths of the national research programmes, EUROfusion has created a truly European research effort. This has made Europe a stronger global actor and the global leader in the field of fusion research.
One of the most striking improvements since the start of the EUROfusion Consortium is the joint programming of the various tokamak devices. Annual campaign planning starts by defining the high-level objectives and prioritising the ideas for experiments that address them. Only after the priorities are set is it decided which of the tokamaks (or combination of them) can best tackle the individual experimental proposals. In this way gaps are avoided and a coherent programme is moulded that sees scientists from all over Europe joining experiments at JET and the various national facilities.
In the meantime, EUROfusion has become a brand with its own distinct identity. Nowadays, when you visit international fusion conferences you see many posters and presentations with our unmistakable blue circle. I am often commended by leaders from other countries for the enormous impact EUROfusion is making in the field. Just a few days before writing this address, a Japanese director expressed how impressed he was by the synergy of Europe’s tokamak and stellarator programmes which are working together towards one common goal.
Looking back at the past years, we can be proud of the many achievements the Consortium has realised. However, many challenges remain to be tackled in Horizon Europe – the upcoming Framework Programme running from 2021 to 2025. For instance, the DEMO design activity needs to be expanded, which implies a further shift from plasma physics and fusion science to fusion technology. It will be a challenge to keep the required skills and expertise on board and retain the European labs’ eagerness and matching national funding during this transition.
Elsewhere in this issue I am quoted as having compared myself to a captain of an airplane tasked with repairing the engines while in full flight. EUROfusion was set up in 2014 in a relatively short time. As a result we had to adopt many rules and regulations from EFDA, our predecessor programme, on the fly. As we prepare for Horizon Europe, we have a golden opportunity to improve the organisation itself. In fact, a dedicated in-flight repair team is already hard at work at improving the governance and administration of EUROfusion.
Why EUROfusion? Because working collaboratively is the best way to realise clean energy as quickly as possible.