Interview: Ana Belén del Cerro, Spanish Liaison Officer for fusion projects (ITER) at CDTI

Belén del Cerro Gordo is currently ILO for ITER (F4E and ITER organization) and other fusion-related projects within the organization chart of CDTI. Belén graduated from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) after completing the degree in Aeronautical Engineering. She also holds an MBA from the Spanish National University of Distance Education (UNED), and a master’s degree in R&D project management and in automation and robotics also from the UPM. With more than 20 years of professional experience in the public and private sectors, Belén has been involved in different sectors and companies, such as aeronautics, defense, astronomy and nuclear fusion.

From 2007, Belén works at the Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology (CDTI), where she has held different positions at the Large Scientific Facilities and Dual Programmes Department, acting as focal point for industry (ILO-Industrial Liaison Officer) for different organisations such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Belén is also expert in the Euratom Program Committee for fusion and in the Scientific Facility Program of the European Commission.

-CDTI is an essential link between Spanish companies and Large Scientific Facilities. What is its role?

CDTI was named Industrial Liaison Officer by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation or focal point between companies interested in participating and Large Scientific Facilities. The main goal of the ILO is to maximize the technological and industrial return derived from Spain’s contribution in Large Scientific Facilities from not only a quantitative perspective but mainly from a qualitative perspective with significant contracts of technical excellence implemented in these scientific infrastructures by our national industry.

Some of the activities conducted by the ILO are to disseminate opportunities and work plans for the industry sector and to defend the capacities of the industry sector in finance committees of Large Scientific Facilities. We accompany enterprises in the preparation of applications offering advice and we edit the catalogue of our industry’s capacities in Large Scientific Facilities. Other activities include the organisation of visits and the Spanish national day in Large Scientific Facilities. CDTI supports the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation in the preparation of candidacies to host these facilities in our territory, as is the case of DONES.

I would like to highlight that some of the advantages that CDTI offers in its role as ILO are the centralisation of the entire national ILO network in a single entity, benefiting from the use of common tools such as our common data base of companies, and the possibility to support the industry sector with different R&D mechanisms to acquire the necessary technological capacities prior to Large Scientific Facility procurement processes.

The industry of science, a sector of high added value

-How has Spain’s science industry evolved in the last years?

The science industry sector comprises all companies that supply Large Scientific Facilities. With the scientific community as their client, it is an emerging market that generates and uses new technologies, is intensive in R&D and in which the transference of knowledge and experiences is bidirectional and continuous between companies, Large Scientific Facilities, universities, and research centres. The industry of science is a sector with a high added value, international, and in which cutting-edge technologies are developed and frequently transferred to other market segments.

In the past years, the success of Spain’s industry of science participating in Large Scientific Facilities has increased significantly. We have witnessed our industry standing out in critical and relevant technologies with an increasing number of Spanish companies leading large European industrial consortia in this sector. It is worth noting the growing number of successful SMEs in industry of science, many of which are currently leading multi-millionaire contracts.

According to data available in CDTI, during the last 15 years (2006-2020) Spanish industry has returned over €1,4 billion from international Large Scientific Facilities in the fields of physics, astronomy, and fusion in which the Ministry contributes, in a competitive and highly technological market. The main technological areas include superconducting magnets, precision mechanics, cryogenics and vacuum systems, control, radiofrequency, diagnosis, electronics, and civil engineering, amongst others.

We are optimistic with the future perspective of Spain’s science industry. Considering only the fields of particle physics, fusion, and astronomy, the business opportunities for European companies in the upcoming period (2022-2026) are estimated in €37 billion and we hope that Spain’s industry continues leading the ranking of contracts in these Large Scientific Facilities. Only in nuclear fusion we estimate a return of more than €70 million per year for the next three years.

-How relevant are Spanish companies in the construction of large scientific facilities? What is their contribution to large nuclear fusion projects?

The overall return of the national industry in Large Scientific Facilities has experimented a linear growth in the past years, demonstrating the excellent positioning of our companies in this sector. This has been achieved on a competitive concurrence basis in a highly technological market. Besides the impressive data in terms of return, I would also like to highlight the increase of technological quality of the awarded contracts, which have allowed our companies to lead cutting-edge technologies in accelerators, astronomy and, of course, nuclear fusion.

Concerning the contribution of Spain’s national science industry to nuclear fusion, in the past 10 years over 68 % of procurement in Large Scientific Facilities for Spanish companies was achieved in contracts awarded for the ITER project. Only in 2020, the Spanish industry broke the record of contracts for ITER, achieving over 40, with a high technological value and worth €300 million. Since the commissioning of the project, Spanish companies have obtained over 350 contracts in the ITER project for over €1.2 billion.

Once again, I would like to stress the importance of the high technological value of these contracts. Our companies participate in the supply of the largest superconducting magnets in the world and in complex components such as the manufacturing and assembling of the vacuum system or the manufacturing of pieces of the first wall that will be in contact with the plasma and will act as first barrier. They are also involved in the manufacturing of different MITICA components, a real scale prototype of the injector that will be used in ITER to heat plasma.

In addition, it is worth noting the contracts for diagnosis, instrumentation and control, and power sources, and they are participating in the process of assembly of the reactor, particularly those obtained to support the alignment and metrology and assembly of the tokamak. Finally, in civil engineering, we can highlight Spain’s participation in the consortium that won the contract for the building engineering and contractor support. Our industry is also involved in the construction of the tokamak (star building for ITER) among other important contracts.

The Spanish industry sector, capable of assuming over 65 % of the construction of DONES

-Does the success of Spanish companies in ITER pave the way towards their participation in other key projects in the race towards fusion energy such as IFMIF-DONES?

Of course, all references obtained by our industry in ITER, in the EVEDA phase of IFMIF, and in other accelerators such as LHC in CERN strengthen their positioning for the supply of systems and components of a high added value for IFMIF-DONES. A study conducted by CIEMAT and CDTI in 2017 estimated that our industry would be capable of over 65 % of the construction of DONES, which would translate into over €200 million. Today these figures would very likely be better. To achieve a positive outcome, the participation in national Unique Scientific and Technical Infrastructures (ICTS) is of great importance. It allows our industry to access the manufacturing of unique components for the first time and acquire the experience and references for future contracts in Large Scientific Infrastructures. In this regard I would like to emphasize how the participation of our national industry in the construction of the TJ-II (over 70 %) helped in its positioning for ITER.

Our experience shows us that another key factor to success consists in the early detection of technologies and opportunities in a short-long term and in the prior training of technological capabilities through R&D projects. For instance, CDTI has financed R&D projects of companies in significant technologies for DONES since 2007 and worth approximately €15 million. Most companies leading the national procurement ranking in the ITER project were trained previously through different tools offered by CDTI in the past.

Finally, as the third ingredient in the recipe for success, I would like to mention the importance of knowing well the scientific and technological ecosystem and having contacted technicians at the Large Scientific Facilities previously. These are key points for a successful proposal that meets all the technical and economic criteria established.

-What opportunities will the particle accelerator project create for Spain’s science industry if it is finally built in Granada?

As mentioned previously, an analysis of the national market conducted by CIEMAT and CDTI in 2017 concluded that Spain’s industry of science will have the capacity to implement over 65 % of the construction of the project. Considering that DONES will be an international project in cooperation that will entail €200 million in contracts for construction, this figure will increase for the operation phase, reaching a return of €300 million in contracts for maintenance and services.

Spanish companies are prepared to address highly technological components of the accelerators, test systems and Li systems, in addition to implementing civil engineering tasks and plant systems among others. The accelerator market is undergoing a continuous growth in the last years caused by medical accelerators. The participation of our industry in DONES will provide excellent references for our national industry to position themselves for DEMO, the future prototype of a fusion device that will generate energy. Finally, it would place us in a unique position to lead one of the most important energy sectors of the future: fusion energy.

High degree of acceptance of the project by Spanish industry

-CDTI is promoting such opportunities among Spanish companies through different webinars and events. Is the project being accepted?

The degree of acceptance of the project by Spain’s industry sector is outstanding. The companies have been following the project and some have even participated in the preparatory phase EVEDA within the Broader Approach in the construction of some of the prototypes. The European industry is clearly interested in the project and there is a widespread interest in the opportunities that the project will offer.

There is also a clear political support to the project that has remained stable with different changes at the institutional level. At the regional level, the project is being extraordinarily accepted and, thanks to the dissemination, the society values the socioeconomic, technological, and industrial impact that the DONES facility will entail.

CDTI has cooperated in dissemination and promotion activities for many years, and we are leading the organisation of the BSBF2022 (Big Science Business Forum), a major forum for the European industry of science. This edition will take place in Granada to support the construction of DONES in Escúzar. CDTI encourages Spain’s industry of science to actively engage in this event, as an unprecedented opportunity in this kind of forum in Granada.

The need to encourage SMEs to participate in this sector

-Which are the obstacles that companies find when attempting to participate in Large Scientific Facilities? Is it possible for SMEs?

Companies face all kinds of technical, administrative, and bureaucratic obstacles. They also have to deal with the complexity of entering a bidding process for the first time and knowing in detail the purchase and functioning rules, which differ from one facility to another.

The main technical obstacles are related to achieving the necessary references and experience to participate in these procedures of great technical complexity. They have to be capable of achieving the best offer according to the allocation criteria of each Large Scientific Facility. On the other hand, they must be capable of identifying interesting opportunities to become technologically qualified in advance and contact the technicians at the Large Scientific Facilities. I also believe that the knowledge of the national and international ecosystem is important for presenting the best possible offer.

From my personal point of view, the aspects that have influenced the most in overcoming such obstacles in the field of fusion are prior industrial capacitation and the preparation of a good offer.

Finally, I would like to encourage SMEs to participate in this sector. Participation at early stages has enabled many SMEs thanks to tenders of small amounts or through ‘Calls for expertise’ to find a way to work and engage directly with the project. In addition, they have been able to seek potential outsourcing opportunities by the leaders. In this sense, it is important what I mentioned before about the knowledge of the national and international ecosystem. SMEs face important obstacles to participate in projects such as ITER, where the quantities of the procurement opportunities are very high, but, as mentioned previously, we have clear examples of national SMEs leading consortia with multi-millionaire contracts.

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