Earlier this year, tech giant and philanthropist Bill Gates announced a personal commitment of $1 billion to boost research and development of promising clean energy technologies. At the opening of the United Nations climate change summit in Paris this morning, he revealed that he won't be doing it alone.
A veritable who's who of Silicon Valley billionaires have pledged their support for the launch of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a multibillion dollar private incubator to fund groundbreaking technologies that will "limit the impact of climate change while providing affordable and reliable energy to everyone." Backers include Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Meg Whitman, and more than 25 other influential people in technology, media and philanthropy.
In a blog post, Gates explains that while solar panels and wind turbines have helped to usher in the age of renewable energy, the development of next-generation technologies is needed to push the world towards a true zero-carbon energy future.
"Given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths — and that means we also need to invent new approaches," he writes. "Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs, but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund. Both have a role to play."
The problem with any promising technology, Gates notes, is that it often takes several years or more to come to market. As such, it's important to help companies with great ideas cross what he calls the "Valley of Death," or the time between innovation in the lab to commercialization in the marketplace.
"We will focus on early-stage companies that could make reliable zero-carbon energy available to everyone," he adds. "Some of these companies will fail. We expect the successful ones to attract large amounts of traditional capital investments as they are demonstrated and deployed."
So what futuristic tech might the Breakthrough Energy Coalition support from infancy to marketplace? Below are three examples of particular interest to Gates.
In the future, you won't just install solar panels, you'll also have the option to "paint" them on. Researchers have had success creating light-sensitive dyes that are capable of converting almost 20 percent of solar energy into electricity, an efficiency rate greater than current commercial photovoltaic cells. Unfortunately, the current dyes contain toxic lead, which the U.S. long ago banned from use in paints. The secret sauce in solar paint, a mineral called perovskite, also tends to fall apart in damp conditions. Gates says more research is needed to create a nontoxic paint that's not only easy to apply, but also stable and able to withstand Mother Nature.
According to Gates, the world will be using 50 percent more energy by mid-century than it does today. In order to meet that demand, we're going to need new ways to store massive amounts of energy from clean sources. Enter the flow battery, a type of rechargeable fuel cell that involves holding tanks and the transfer of energy from liquid electrolytes. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, flow batteries can last for decades without a drop-off in capacity. They also have no harmful emissions.
Current prototypes use a rare and costly element called vanadium, but research is already underway on more powerful and cost-effective alternatives; a breakthrough that Gates says may one day usher in flow batteries for industrial applications.
What if solar energy, in addition to electricity, could also be harnessed to create clean-burning fuels? Similar to photosynthesis in plants, this process would use energy from sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. As one example, that hydrogen could then be used to power an industrial fuel cell or hydrogen-powered vehicle.
Current hydrogen production is extremely energy-intensive, so finding a self-sustaining, clean energy alternative would be a game changer for the industry. "Solar chemical would put us on a path to decarbonizing both the electricity and transportation sectors," adds Gates.