Innovating to Zero: Bill Gates (Full Transcript)

What I found is that all the batteries we make now could store less than 10 minutes of all the energy. And so, in fact, we need a big breakthrough here, something that’s going to be a factor of 100 better than the approaches we have now. It’s not impossible, but it’s not a very easy thing.

Now, this shows up when you try to get the intermittent source to be above, say, 20% to 30% of what you’re using. If you’re counting on it for 100%, you need an incredible miracle battery.

Now, how are we going to go forward on this — what’s the right approach? Is it a Manhattan Project? What’s the thing that can get us there? Well, we need lots of companies working on this — hundreds. In each of these five paths, we need at least a hundred people. A lot of them, you’ll look at and say, “They’re crazy.” That’s good.

And, I think, here in the TED group, we have many people who are already pursuing this. Bill Gross has several companies, including one called eSolar that has some great solar thermal technologies.

Vinod Khosla is investing in dozens of companies that are doing great things and have interesting possibilities, and I’m trying to help back that.

Nathan Myhrvold and I actually are backing a company that, perhaps surprisingly, is actually taking the nuclear approach. There are some innovations in nuclear: modular, liquid. Innovation really stopped in this industry quite some ago, so the idea that there’s some good ideas laying around is not all that surprising.

The idea of TerraPower is that, instead of burning a part of uranium — the one percent, which is the U235 — we decided, “Let’s burn the 99%, the U238.” It is kind of a crazy idea.

In fact, people had talked about it for a long time, but they could never simulate properly whether it would work or not. And so it’s through the advent of modern supercomputers that now you can simulate and see that, yes, with the right materials approach, this looks like it would work.

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And because you’re burning that 99%, you have greatly improved cost profile. You actually burn up the waste, and you can actually use as fuel all the leftover waste from today’s reactors.

So instead of worrying about them, you just take that, it’s a great thing. It breeds this uranium as it goes along, so it’s kind of like a candle. You see it’s a log there, often referred to as a traveling wave reactor.

In terms of fuel, this really solves the problem. I’ve got a picture here of a place in Kentucky. This is the leftover, the 99%, where they’ve taken out the part they burn now, so it’s called depleted uranium. That would power the US for hundreds of years.

And simply by filtering seawater in an inexpensive process, you’d have enough fuel for the entire lifetime of the rest of the planet.

So, you know, it’s got lots of challenges ahead, but it is an example of the many hundreds and hundreds of ideas that we need to move forward.

So let’s think: How should we measure ourselves? What should our report card look like? Well, let’s go out to where we really need to get, and then look at the intermediate.

For 2050, you’ve heard many people talk about this 80% reduction. That really is very important, that we get there. And that 20% will be used up by things going on in poor countries — still some agriculture; hopefully, we will have cleaned up forestry, cement.

So, to get to that 80%, the developed countries, including countries like China, will have had to switch their electricity generation altogether.

The other grade is: Are we deploying this zero-emission technology, have we deployed it in all the developed countries and are in the process of getting it elsewhere? That’s super important. That’s a key element of making that report card.

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Backing up from there, what should the 2020 report card look like? Well, again, it should have the two elements. We should go through these efficiency measures to start getting reductions: The less we emit, the less that sum will be of CO2, and therefore, the less the temperature.

But in some ways, the grade we get there, doing things that don’t get us all the way to the big reductions, is only equally, or maybe even slightly less, important than the other, which is the piece of innovation on these breakthroughs.

These breakthroughs, we need to move those at full speed, and we can measure that in terms of companies, pilot projects, regulatory things that have been changed.

There’s a lot of great books that have been written about this. The Al Gore book, “Our Choice,” and the David MacKay book, “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.” They really go through it and create a framework that this can be discussed broadly, because we need broad backing for this.

There’s a lot that has to come together. So this is a wish. It’s a very concrete wish that we invent this technology. If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years — I could pick who’s president, I could pick a vaccine, which is something I love, or I could pick that this thing that’s half the cost with no CO2 gets invented — this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact.

If we don’t get this wish, the division between the people who think short term and long term will be terrible, between the US and China, between poor countries and rich, and most of all, the lives of those two billion will be far worse.

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