Moore’s Law and the fast pace of innovation in computing and the Internet have deeply spoiled and confused us in terms of how fast the pace of innovation should be for other sectors like energy. That was the basic sentiment from Microsoft Chairman and former CEO Bill Gates at the Techonomy event last week (video here), and the idea explains a lot in terms of energy entrepreneurs’ and investors’ missteps and motivations.
In 1965, Gordon Moore famously predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double roughly every two years. The result is that over 40 years later semiconductors are cheap and powerful enough to be embedded into everything from our bus passes to our library books, and the platform of personal computing has delivered our current always-on Internet-based society. Without chip innovation and Moore’s Law, there’d be no Facebook, Google, or the iPhone.
But, as Gates put it last week, we’ve been fooled by the rapid success of IT, and “there are things that just don’t move forward.” The pace of chips and IT innovation “is rare,” said Gates.
Unfortunately, some of those “things that don’t move forward” are fundamental platforms for the energy industry. For example, as Gates pointed out: batteries. “Batteries have not improved hardly at all. There are deep physical limits,” to this technology, he said.
The standard lead acid and lithium ion batteries, which power our gadgets and laptops, have undergone only very minor improvements, despite the fact that in the past couple of years entrepreneurs and investors have tried to inject innovation into the space. Gates himself said that he is investing in five battery startups, while he’s looked at another 50 battery startups in the market place.
Another energy technology that has completely stalled is nuclear power. That stopped moving in the 1970s, Gates noted, and a major barrier for innovation has been the length of time that it takes to get a nuclear project approved and built in the U.S. “Most of us would like to work on things that happen during our lifetime. The lack of investment in this space is very understandable,” said Gates.
Gates is also trying to use his resources to inject innovation into nuclear power. He’s backed (and is “deeply involved with” he said at Techonomy) nuclear startup TerraPower, which is a spinoff project from Intellectual Ventures, an incubator founded by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. TerraPower uses a “traveling wave reactor design,” that uses waste uranium to power it and can provide energy for hundreds of years without having to be refueled.
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