Highlights from TED 2010, Friday: "Using nuclear waste to power next generation's reactors"

Here's my round up of highlights from the second day of the TED 2010 presentations. I especially enjoyed Bill Gates' talk about a zero-carbon future, and Temple Grandin's talk about the valuable contributions autistic people make. (Here's Thursday's round up. Here's Wednesday's round up)

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Bill Gates at TED2010, Session 8, "Boldness," Friday, February 12, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Bill Gates said a changing climate is especially bad for developing nations, mainly because it hurts crop yields. Temperature increase has effects on weather, ecosystems can't adjust and collapse. There is uncertainty about how bad the effects of increases in atmospheric CO2 are but they will be bad. Until we get to near zero, the temperature will go up. "We have to get to zero."

Currently, 26 billions tons of CO2 are released each year. Americans are responsible for 20 tons per person. The global average is 5 tons per person.

He showed this equation:

Total CO2 = World population x Services x Energy of each service x CO2 per unit of energy

The neat thing about an equation that uses only multiplication is that if any of the four factors can be reduced to zero, then you don't have to worry about the other three factors. The total CO2 output will be zero. So which one can we make zero?

The first factor, Population, is headed to 9 billion people, an increase of 1.3. (We don't want this to go to zero, unless you belong to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.)

The second factor, Services delivered per person, means things like food, electricity, heat. It's a great thing for this number to go up for most people. Gates showed a slide of kids reading their homework under street lamps in India because their homes have no electricity.

The third factor, Energy of each service, has been going down, because we are getting better at making fertilizer, transportation, designing buildings. We could see a reduction of a factor of three to six.

So far, we've gone from 26 billon tons of CO2 to 13 billion tons. That's not good enough. We need zero.

Now, the last factor, CO2 per unit of energy. We have to create a new system. We need an energy miracle. He doesn't mean we need to achieve the impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle, The Internet is a miracle. We need an energy miracle along the lines of the Internet. But here's the added challenge: "Usually we don't need a miracle before a certain date. This one is on a tight timeline."

We need energy solutions with unbelievable scale and reliability. Tide, geothermal, fusion, biofuels, are cool, but they just won't do it. Gates has a list of five other types of fuels that aren't out of the running:

1. Burning fossil fuels -- You need to take all CO2, convert it to liquid and store it and hope it stays there. It will be tricky. Who is going to guarantee something billions of times larger than nuclear waste won't get out?

2. Nuclear energy -- the concerns are cost, safety, making sure the fuel is not used for weapons, and the waste problem.

3, 4, and 5. Solar thermal, solar voltaic, and wind -- all three of these have dramatically less energy density than fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and are intermittent sources. Wind and sun aren't constant. So you need to get energy when there is no sun or wind. Do you store it in batteries? He looked at batteries. All the batteries we make now could store less than ten minutes of all the energy we consume. The battery problem is not impossible but it's not easy. "You need an incredible miracle battery."

So Gates is looking at nuclear as the most likely miracle. "A molecule of uranium has a million times more energy than a molecule of coal." He and Nathan "Mosquito Zapper" Myrhvold are backing a nuclear approach. It's called Terrapower, and it's different from a standard nuclear reactor. Instead of burning the 1% of uranium-235 found in natural uranium, this reactor burns the other 99%, called uranium-238. You can use all the leftover waste from today's reactors as fuel. "In terms of fuel this really solves the problem." He showed a photo of depleted waste uranium in steel cylinders at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky -- the waste at this plant could supply the US energy needs for 200 years (woah!), and filtering seawater for uranium could supply energy for much longer than that.

TED's Chris Anderson asked: If this doesn't work, then what?

Gates: If you get in that situation - there is a line of research on geoengineering that could give us 20 additional years to get our act together. But that's a last resort. Gates wants to solve the problem without geoengineering.

Temple-Grandin Temple Grandin has a sense of humor! She said she feels right at home at TED because "there's a lot of autism genetics" here. She got right into one of her passions, which is designing livestock handling facilities. One facility had nervous cattle and was about to tear the place down and start over. She went there and saw the American flag on the pole and told them to take it down. "Cows don't like flag waving." The rapid movement and contrast bugs them. She goes into chutes and is able to think like a cow, looking for things that will agitate it.

"I see movies in my imagination." When you ask a "normal person" about church steeples they imagine generalized generic steeples. She sees "Google for pictures." A slide show of all the steeples she's ever seen runs through her imagination. She can stop at any one of the mental photos and turn it into a video. This turns out to be a "tremendous asset into making cattle handling facilities. I can run a piece of test equipment in my mind."

There's a reason for her super visual powers. She showed her brain scan compared to a "normal brain" (her term). The visual part of her brain is much larger! "I have a huge internet trunk line for graphics." (The trade-off, she said, is few social circuits). Her gift of highly visual thinking gives her a lot of insight into animal minds. Animals thinks in images, sounds, smells, not words. "The world needs different kinds of minds to work together." She sees nerdy kids who aren't social, not being led towards science. "We need to get these geeky nerdy kids turned on." She says in the middle of the country, outside Silicon Valley and other geek meccas, the teachers don't know what to do with these kids. It was a huge mistake for schools to take out auto shop, art, and drafting class in school.

There are three kinds of autistics, and each kind can excel in certain fields:

Visual thinkers: art, design, industrial design, photography

Pattern thinker: mathematicians, programmers

Verbal thinkers: journalists, stage actors

"I had to learn social skills like being in a play."

Anderson asks her, "What are you most passionate about?" Her answer: "The things I do that are going to make the world a better place. I get satisfaction about seeing things that make a real change in the real world. We have too much abstract stuff."

(Prolonged standing ovation)