March 30, 2010

Smart Products | Smarter Energy Tops Bill Gates' Innovation Wish List

At this year’s TED Conference, Bill Gates (News - Alert) surprised some observers by shifting the focus of his presentation from his well-known advocacy for global health issues to the challenge of developing smarter energy generation solutions. In a talk titled “Innovating to Zero,” Gates pointed out the limitations of today’s incremental reductions in carbon emissions and challenged the audience to think about how to develop smart technology to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050 – with the developed world accepting the need to cut back emissions to zero while developing countries continue to rely on a mix of traditional and new energy sources. Gates acknowledged the difficulty of achieving this goal without a dramatic technology breakthrough, saying in a follow up blog post on The Gates Notes (his personal Web page).

“In the presentation, I talked about the massive innovation effort needed to deliver “energy miracles,” breakthroughs that will make zero-carbon energy generation possible. There are many promising approaches which we need to continue pursuing aggressively: CCS [carbon capture and sequestration], Nuclear, Wind, Solar PV and Solar Thermal – but they all have challenges that must be addressed. And the only way to get there is through innovation.”

The adoption of current renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power, he noted, have intrinsic problems that prevent them from scaling into commercially viable global substitutes for fossil fuels. Gates called for more investment in energy research as well as radical innovation that will take us beyond the current alternatives to achieve zero-carbon-emissions. To underscore the urgency of developing such solutions, he concluded the TED presentation by saying “If I had only one wish – it would be for zero-carbon energy that is half the price of today’s.”

Bill Gates is doing more than just wishing for a smarter energy solution. He is actively investing part of his personal fortune in long-term energy innovation in nuclear power generation-- an area that has often been opposed by green advocacy groups. The company benefiting the most from Gates direct funding support is TerraPower, a Seattle area energy innovator incubated by Intellectual Ventures (News - Alert), the intellectual property firm founded by another Microsoft visionary, former chief scientist Nathan Myhrvold.

According to the Intellectual Ventures Web site, TerraPower is taking a radically different approach to nuclear power generation, starting with modeling and design of small nuclear reactors can be fueled using already depleted uranium – in effect the waste products of traditional nuclear power plants. Transporting and safely storing this depleted but still highly radioactive fuel for the long term is currently a huge and very expensive challenge, creating a barrier to the approval of new reactors.

By turning this waste into fuel for a more efficient reactor process, TerraPower engineers project “that a wave of fission moving slowly through a fuel core could generate a billion watts of electricity continuously for well over 50 to 100 years without refueling. This new class of reactors, known as traveling-wave reactors, could enable nations to simplify the nuclear infrastructure dramatically. TWRs could reduce the amount of nuclear waste by using existing stockpiles of depleted uranium as fuel. By extracting centuries worth of energy from waste at enrichment plants, the TWRs would turn a social and financial liability into an asset.”

If it succeeds in moving from the laboratory to the marketplace, the TerraPower technology would indeed be a radical breakthrough in the quest for smarter, cheaper and cleaner energy. Smart technology transformation doesn’t happen fast, however, especially in the heavily regulated world of energy generation and nuclear power. Once the traveling-wave reactor technology is ready for prototyping there is a long cycle of testing and approval ahead of Terrapower. John Gillebrand, a TerraPower executive, has said that a realistic timeline for deployment would be 10 to 15 years.

Even with this protracted time frame, TerraPower technology is already attracting commercial interest. In March 2010, in was reported that TerraPower was in talks with Toshiba (News - Alert) for joint development and commercialization. Toshiba, a global technology giant, has itself been investigating small and innovative nuclear power reactor technology and seems interested in leveraging the TWR process. Combing forces might accelerate the development of small scale, long-cycle TWR reactors, if not the regulatory approval process. More partners like Toshiba, in combination with Bill Gates’ deep pockets as a committed investor, would certainly help TerraPower to make an “energy miracle” become reality.

Watch Bill Gate’s talk on “Innovating to zero!” and the need for “energy miracles” on the TED video Web site.

Dr. Cronin is a Professor of Management in the Information Systems Department at Boston College. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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