Bill Gates’ Dream of Fission

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Posted by Rezwan Razani on Apr 13, 2012 at 12:23 PM
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Bill Gates is a strong supporter of nuclear fission rather than fusion.  By his example with fission, he reveals a better way to approach and market the fusion program.

The TED Talk

Bill Gates, in his February 2010 TED talk champions ending global poverty and providing everyone access to clean energy without CO2.  After reviewing the available energy options he goes on to enthusiastically support fission.  Fission!

House of Fusion, wake up call!  Gates’ strategy is inspiring.  If we apply it to Fusion, we can beat those fission guys.

View the Video

 

Defining the Energy+CO2 Challenge

For Gates, the energy+CO2 challenge requires

  • reducing the price of electricity,
  • making more electricity available, and
  • taking CO2 to zero. 

This is urgent. “We have to drive at full speed to get a miracle in a pretty tight timeline.”  (“Miracles” are defined as great achievements.  The PC is a miracle.)

An energy breakthrough is the most important thing.  It would have been, even without the environmental constraint, but the environmental constraint just makes it so much greater.

Is Fusion a Gimmick?

Gates then opened a jar of fireflies (a reference to “Firefly”?) and said,

There’s all sorts of gimmicky solutions like that one.  but they don’t really add up to much. We need solutions, either one or several that have unbelievable scale and unbelievable reliability.  And although there’s many directions that people are seeking, I’ve left out tide, geothermal, fusion, biofuels.  Those may make some contributions and if they can do better than I expect, so much the better.

Bill has low expectations for fusion because:

...when you have something that’s non-economic, and you’re trying to fund that, that to me, is mostly a waste.  ...I believe we should try more things that have the potential to be far less expensive.  If the tradeoff you get into is let’s make energy super expensive, then, the rich can afford that.  The disaster is for that two billion [people in poverty].  Fund things that have a potential to make the price of energy go down.

Though his expectations are low, he is open to better performance.  The question is, are his expectations based on the mainline approaches to fusion alone? Has he taken into account fusion alternatives or advance fuel ideas? Is he picking up on the static in the fusion community? What information is required to upgrade his expectations?

Gates’ Top Picks

Gates then listed his contenders.

  • Fossil fuels (if you can clean and sequester the carbon),
  • Renewables (except renewables require batteries, and “All the batteries on Earth can store only 10 minutes of the worlds electricity needs.”); and
  • Nuclear fission

Of these, Gates found the greatest promise in nuclear fission (in particular, the Traveling Wave Reactor idea championed by TerraPower), and opened up my view of fission.  What a great field!  This presents a real challenge to the idea of fusion. 

Lessons in Strategy

All is not lost for fusion.  Bill’s strategy for developing advanced fission ideas applies just as well to fusion.  By his example with fission, Bill reveals a better way to approach and market the fusion program.  Observe: 

Take a Multi Target Approach

In general, Bill is gracious when speaking about alternative approaches that compete with his favorite:

In the nuclear space there are other innovators.  We don’t know their work as well as we know this one.  ...the modular people…there’s a liquid type reactor, seems a little hard, but maybe they say that about us.

Underlying the grace is a fundamental view that this problem requires a multi target, massively parallel approach.

How do we go forward on this?  What’s the approach?  Is it a Manhattan project?  What’s going to get us there?

We need lots of companies working on this.  Hundreds.  In each of these 5 paths we need at least 100 people.  A lot of them you’ll look at and say “they’re crazy”, and that’s good.

Let’s use those same words and apply them to fusion.

“We need lots of fusion companies working on this.  HUNDREDS.  At least.  A lot of them you’ll look at and say “they’re crazy”, and that’s good.”

Permission to Explore, Err and Be Incredible

You’ll say, “They’re crazy”, and that’s good? 

Thank you Bill!  Permission to explore and err in the pursuit of science!  What a concept.

Presently, the fusion community is burdened by a need for premature “credibility.” Projects are pressured to produce results without adequate resources, to know in advance of necessary research which path will work the best.  This leads to a paradoxical state of overselling and underselling in fusion.  Alternative approaches, which have been starved for funds because they are deemed “speculative” have been slowed in revealing their true potential, thus justifying further starvation. 

Why is trying many different approaches and “looking crazy” acceptable for fission, but not fusion? 

Good Things Take Time and Money and are not Guaranteed

At this point in the TED talk, you might think Bill expects the TerraPower project to work any day now.  But it turns out this is far from a done deal. He is giving it several decades, and allowing for the possibility that it might fail. This comes up in the Q&A session, 18 minutes into the video:

Scale of investment: To do the software, supercomputer, hire great scientists - only tens of millions.  Even once we test our materials out in a Russian reactor to make sure that the materials work properly, then you’ll only be Hundreds of millions.  The tough thing is building a pilot reactor, Several billion, regulator, location.  Once you get the first one built, and it works as advertised, then it’s plain as day - the economics, energy density are so different than nuclear as we know it.

How is this different from the estimates of many fusion concepts?  That’s the same song and dance for fusion.  Actually, among fusion alternatives there is a broad range of expected investment needs, depending on the device or theory being tested.  Some are quite modest - others quite ambitious.  As with the fission ideas, they all start modestly and only require greater sums as they prove their viability at each step. 

But this fission that Gates is excited about must be much closer to completion than any fusion project, right? 

Time scale:  20 years to invent, 20 to deploy.  [Fission in 40 years!  Where have I heard that before - oh- fusion.]  Terrapower, if things go well, which is wishing for a lot, could easily meet that.

“If things go well.”  “Wishing”.  Thank you Gates.  Yes,  there are no guarantees in fission, either.  This same risk scenario - a long term investment - it’s there for fission, as it is for fusion. 

And yet, he takes the fission bait.  More - he wants HUNDREDS of similar projects launched.  He says it: 

There are, fortunately now, dozens of companies, we need it to be hundreds, [emphasis added] who likewise, if their science goes well, if the funding for their pilot plants goes well, that they can compete for this.  And it’s best if multiples succeed, because then you could use a mix of these things.  We certainly need one to succeed.

Tens of Billions Spent on R&D is Worth It

Math time.  Gates has just said that the project he’s funding is a 40 year project (and not because that’s how long they think it will take realistically -but because that’s how long it MUST take given environmental urgency, as he said elsewhere.)

He also says that a project will cost money in 3 stages:

  1. initial computational stage - tens of millions
  2. testing reactor and materials - hundreds of millions
  3. pilot reactor - several billion.

And he wants hundreds of these.  Let’s do the math.  That’s:

  1. hundreds of tens of millions = billions
  2. hundreds of hundreds of millions = tens of billions
  3. hundreds of several billions = hundreds of billions.

You would weed a lot of things out at steps one and two.  Thus tens of billions ought to cover even a diversified approach.  Far less than the $409 Billion in subsidies the US gives the oil industry each year.

Where are the fusion advocates who put forth this type of parallel, fully funded scenario?

The Upside is Worth the Cost of Innovation

 
Then Bill says:

The beauty of this is that a molecule of uranium has a million times as much energy as a molecule of coal.  If you can deal with the negatives, which is essentially the radiation, the footprint and cost is… in a class of its own.

For more about the pros and cons of fission, read Chapter 24 of Without Hot Air.  Note, the book does not discuss the terrapower traveling wave concept, which Gates suggests can last much longer than the 1000 year estimates given for other fission approaches.

In any case, even more can be said for Fusion.  The energy in a molecule of water is even greater than uranium if you can figure fusion out. Likewise, if you advance to the next generation of fusion (aneutronic) there are essentially no negatives to deal with. 

Time is of the Essence

Ideal energy is just a few policies, investments and hundreds of experiments away.  The experimenters are standing by.  Waiting for funding.  Waiting when we should be flying through the steps:

the pace of innovation on these breakthroughs, we need to move those breakthroughs at full speed, and we can measure that in terms of companies, pilot projects, regulatory things that have been changed.  [we need to]...create a framework that this can be discussed broadly.  We need broad backing for this.  There’s a lot that has to come together.

He’s talking about fission, but it applies to fusion. 

Concrete Wishes

I love the way Mr. Gates validates wishing (something frowned upon in fusion).  The sad thing is that the fusion community has fallen so short of its ideals that Bill Gates, one of the richest, most successful men on earth, is reduced to wishing for FISSION to work! 

This is a wish.  A very concrete wish that we invent this technology.  If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years - that I can choose the president, develop a vaccine, or I can pick this thing that’s half the cost, with no CO2 to get 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, the division between US and China, between poor countries and rich, and most of all, the, lives of those 2 billion [in poverty] will be far worse.

Actually, he’s worded this well.  A fusion concept could fulfill this wish.  It just has to work and be half the cost of energy today.  The “no CO2” thing is a given.

Fund Research Now!

In sum, Gates tells us what we need to do on the innovation front:

We need to go for more research funding.  When countries get together in places like Copenhagen, they shouldn’t just discuss the CO2, they should discuss this innovation agenda,  You’d be stunned at the ridiculously low levels of spending on these innovative approaches.

Tell us more, Gates:

We need to get the message out, We need to have this dialogue be a more rational, more understandable dialogue, including the steps that the government takes.  this is an important wish, but it is one I think we can achieve.

To those zero-sum folk who think we don’t have the money for this, Gates says:

Actual spending on the R&D piece, say the US should spend 10 billion a year more than it is right now.  It’s not that dramatic, it shouldn’t take a way from other things. The R+D piece, it’s crazy how little it’s funded.

Crazy, indeed.  Ditto for Fusion.

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This talk was given two years ago (Feb. 2010).  It’s time to check back in with Mr. Gates to talk fusion, revisit expectations, and discuss the merits of a massive parallel approach in fusion as well as fission.

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