The Microsoft co-founder called the fireflies a living "energy miracle," the kind he said is needed to reduce the increasing poverty, failing crops and social unrest that rising man-made carbon dioxide emissions will inflict on the planet. "This is something that has to get down to zero," Gates vowed.
He narrowed the options that might accomplish this heroic feat down to a new kind of nuclear reactor.
"Innovation really stopped in this industry quite some time ago," Gates noted, "so the idea that there's some good ideas laying around is not all that surprising."
This assertion by one of the richest, most innovative business leaders in the world could set the stage for one of the more difficult fights of the Trump administration because it poses a Hamlet-like question: Will the United States continue to be a leader in newer, cleaner, safer nuclear reactors in the future — or will someone else?
The issue is tinged with untidy outcomes, such as the prospects for fewer American high-technology export jobs and the potential lack of U.S. leadership in matters ranging from climate change to nuclear proliferation. It has already created splits among U.S. environmental groups over nuclear energy. Energy and industrial groups could also find themselves in new internal debates.
The lecture marked the birth of Gates' new company, TerraPower, located in Bellevue, Wash., and a nuclear research program that led last summer to the award of a $40 million, multiyear Department of Energy research grant to help the company develop a molten chloride fast reactor (MCFR).
This is a machine that, according to TerraPower, will run hotter, yet more safely and economically, than conventional water-cooled reactors. It could generate electricity, but when prices for electricity are low, it could sell the heat to help industries develop a family of cleaner, higher-value products.
"For example," explained Chris Levesque, the current president of TerraPower, "coal could be converted in a very clean way" to synthetic fuels that don't emit CO2.
This may sound too good to be true to some people, but MCFR's attributes have attracted the attention of some influential research partners and a variety of competitors in the United States and especially abroad.
Charles Forsberg, a nuclear power scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that while President Trump has focused most of his energy rhetoric on reviving the nation's coal industry, a revival is not likely to happen. That's because new natural gas-fired plants are more efficient and can work in tandem better with fast-growing solar and wind energy sources.
Proponents of new reactors, particularly those like TerraPower's, have claimed that they could cut overall costs by as much as 80 percent and supply much cheaper energy. That's because normal reactors use only about 5 percent of the energy in their fuel, while advanced reactors can reach 95 percent, leaving substantially less radioactive waste behind in the process. The current world fleet of nuclear reactors produces 386 gigawatts of electricity, but proponents predict that the demands of the future market could be as high as 1,600 GW by midcentury, creating major new markets for skilled jobs.
Read more at Will Trump Back Bill Gates' Dream of a Renaissance?