Harvard 2013 Bulletin No 2
Here’s my second bulletin summarising key takeaways from a recent week at Harvard Business School. The thoughts and views should be regarded as mine, unless otherwise attributed.
Picture: Martin LaMonica/CNET
Terrapower and the Energy Revolution
Not content with trying to foster an education revolution, Bill Gates is also trying to foster an energy revolution which he sees as key to the alleviation of poverty. A think tank that he put together to look at wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and nuclear came to the conclusion that nuclear was the only feasible option if the objective was to provide global access to efficient, affordable energy, while making a substantial difference in carbon emissions.
According to Gates, “If you want to improve the situation of the poorest two billion on the planet, having the price of energy go down substantially would be the best thing you could do for them. That along with the carbon constraint, is hugely important, partly because global warming makes tropical agriculture virtually impossible.”
That said, Gates was also concerned about the environmental risk of nuclear power and the threat of nuclear arms proliferation. So he commissioned research reviewing academic papers to see if there were better ways of doing nuclear power than present techniques. This led in 2008 to the formation of TerraPower, of which Gates is a foundation shareholder, to develop a safe, cost effective, sustainable nuclear reactor.
Specifically, TerraPower uses a travelling wave reactor design. This system burns uranium rods much more efficiently and completely, which in theory means that it could actually be fuelled by existing ‘used’ nuclear waste rods. Far less waste is also produced and because the fuel rod actually burns for decades, it is far more difficult to access byproducts inside the reactor core for the purpose of making weapons. Modern technology also allows the reactor to close down automatically in the event of a major problem, unlike the older style reactor in Fukushima.
TerraPower’s aim is, via computer simulations, to develop a viable design for the new generation reactor and in due course to licence this to nuclear power operators. Significant progress had been made since 2008 in overcoming the technical issues, but TerraPower projected that commercially proving the project could take another 10 years and $4billion.
Whether TerraPower succeeds or not remains to be seen, but what interested me in the case was the array of talent now being harnessed looking at new nuclear technologies.
At the same time there is ongoing research devoted to improving the extraction of energy from oil and gas fields. For example, another case involved a company called Foro Energy which has developed breakthrough laser technologies which if proven commercially, could reduce the cost and improve the speed of drilling deep wells for oil and gas considerably. It also has the ability to remove decommissioned wells much more easily and cheaply.
Looking at these and other cases, led me to feel much more optimistic about the long term energy outlook. Combined with developments in energy saving technologies as well as ongoing progress in solar energy research, I believe that there is every prospect that 10-15 years out our kids will continue to enjoy an abundance of energy, with much less reliance on oil.
And if Gates’ education and energy revolutions achieve their full potential, the impact on global poverty by 2030-40 could be substantial indeed.