The healthy growth of mankind depends on continuously decreasing the cost and increasing the availability of water and energy everywhere.

Nice thought. Why mention it?

Its a mission statement.

For who?

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and through him America’s billionaires.

Why Bill Gates?

His passion; According to a recent interview

Understanding science and pushing the boundaries of science is what makes me immensely satisfied. What I’m doing now involves understanding maths, risk-taking. The first half of my life was good preparation for the second half.’

Now in the context of the interview he was talking about the development of a vaccine to cure a disease like malaria but its clear that energy is part of that picture too.

In 2010 at the annual Ted conference he said his greatest wish–greater even than the efforts of the Bill Gates foundation–was that a new energy source be invented that delivered power for less than half the cost of coal.

If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years… I could pick who’s president…. I could pick a vaccine —- which is something I love— or I could pick this thing that’s half the cost [of coal based electrical production] with no CO2 — gets invented — this is the wish I would pick. This the one with the greatest impact.

This year at his annual corporate executives conference–he included energy research as a core technology research investment goal.

What about water?

Mr Gates is half way to recognizing the importance of water. Over the last several years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given over $1.7 billion to support food security worldwide. At several conferences in the last year he has talked about the importance of grants to help poverty stricken small farmers in South Asia and Africa to grow more food. But at the same time he has emphasized the need for tech innovation.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that Gates offers “a glimpse into his thinking and his hopes for the future. ‘Despite the tough economy, I am still very optimistic about the progress we can make in the years ahead,’ he writes. ‘A combination of scientific innovations and great leaders who are working on behalf of the world’s poorest people will continue to improve the human condition'”

What innovation is foundational to the next great green revolution?


That is delivering water in massive volumes–cheap enough for farming –1000 miles from any seacoast.

Water is foundational to civilization. It always has been. Always will be. In this article 20 former world leaders talk about the looming global water crises. You can already read Wall St Journal articles about the return of 1970’s style ideas from scholars like Paul Ehrlich (Population Bomb) or the Club of Rome’s “Limits of Growth” (read by a million boomers as students in high school, college & graduate school. As it happened, these 70’s books coincided with the peak and initial decline in US (cheap) oil production as well as the end or the era of US dam building.)

Today, many large players through out the world including sovereign wealth funds are buying up agricultural land.

They are anticipating a world wide shortage of food supplies. But these food shortages have not been in rural Africa or Asia where many current poverty programs are targeted. Rather the shortages/high prices have been in big cities. There have been major food riots already. What has not been widely reported about the crises in Egypt this year is that it has been sparked by money –not politics. There were big increases in the cost of grain.

Mr Gates concluded the 2010 Ted conference speech by saying

If we don’t get this wish [for cheaper energy]the division between those who think short term and long term will be terrible between the us and china between poor countries and rich and most of all the lives of those two billion will be far worse

Why get other billionaires involved?

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are looking to get billionaires in the USA and the rest of the world to
give away at least half of their wealth.

Gates & Buffet have left it up to billionaires to decide what to give their money to. Many are agreeable to the idea. But all would love for their money to have a real impact. They want the same thing as Bill Gates. They want to make a difference. However, they don’t know what would have the greatest impact.

What difference does cheap water and cheap energy make?

Consider; If you collapsed the cost of water desalination and transport so as to make desert farming profitable 1000 miles from any seacoast, you could turn the world’s deserts green. That would increase the habitable size of the USA & China each by 1/3, double the habitable size of Africa, triple the habitable size of Mexico, increase by 10 fold or more the habitable size of Australia– and double the size of the habitable earth.

So there’s your vision thing.

Turn the world’s deserts green and double the size of the habitable planet.

Technologically and financially, this is much much simpler and doable than, for example, colonizing the moon. Turning the deserts green just involves lowering the cost of energy and water. (Lower the cost of water and power and market forces and governments will take over to do the rest.)How do you collapse the costs of water and power? I think Mr Gates understands the issues involved with energy. In order, to collapse the cost of delivered desalinized water–just two technologies need to be improved–membranes and pipelines.(Delivering water cheaply over great distances by pushing water uphill will require cheaper energy–as well as better/faster/smarter pipelines. Membranes are currently expensive and require a lot of energy to desalinate water. Their cost/efficiency/longevity is falling by half about once a decade or so. Already, the elements are in place to significantly accelerate that decline in price.) (There are subsidiary issues like finding ways to profitably turn Na+ Cl- and dozens of trace elements–into products. I talk about this in more detail here.)

Wouldn’t you think that this might be a proper thing for the very flowers of healthy growth –America’s billionaires — to devote their seed to? That is. isn’t this goal both worthy and doable? Wouldn’t this have a big impact?

Doesn’t this gives an organic role in civilization for America’s billionaires? (as opposed to say the inorganic role played by billionaires like Soros in promoting — one world government…)

What about the US federal government? Isn’t there a United States program for water desalination? Doesn’t this nation spend money on water R&D? Yes, about 50 million scattered through a dozen agencies. (This compares to 1.5 billion annually in today’s dollars spent on desalination research from roughly 1955-1975 –which research developed the semi permeable membrane that filters much of the installed desalination industry today.) US Corporate desalination R&D contributes another 50 million annually.

Isn’t energy research something that the Department of Energy does?

Yes– but just as with water–the feds are not doing nearly enough. According to Bill Gates in this interview:

Interviewer:You are a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, the AEIC, which calls for a national energy policy that would increase U.S. investment in energy research every year from $5 billion to $16 billion.


Interviewer:I was stunned that the U.S. government invests so little.

Gates: Yeah, particularly when you look at the DOE budget, and it looks so big–but the biggest part of that by far is dealing with the legacy of nuclear weapons production at various sites around the country. I was stunned myself. You know, the National Institutes of Health invest a bit more than $30 billion.

For a moment, lets discuss the Bill Gates Foundation because I think that Mr Gates– by way of his thoughts on global health and its relation to wealth– is already backing into the idea that I’m proposing.

The Gates Foundation funds medical research in diseases that are not common in wealthy countries. (Generally, the Gates foundation serves grant seekers seeking to bring innovations in health, development, and learning to the global community. This includes education scholarships to low income families.)

The Gates Foundation is in that health area, and when we pick a disease to work on, we pick a disease where for some reason the market is not working. Like malaria: rich people don’t need a malaria vaccine. They are rarely in malarial areas, and when they are, they can take prophylactic drugs and not worry about it.

Mr Gates reasons that there is a relationship between health and wealth. According to this article

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2011 ( –
Attributing the decline in the number of children who die before their fifth birthday from 20 million in 1960 to 8.5 million today to infant vaccination, Gates told the audience of more than 2,000 at the conference, “About one-third [of that improvement] is by increasing income. The majority has been through vaccines. Vaccines will be the key.

1/3 might be a little low for the influence of wealth on health. Certainly it could be reasonably argued that 1/2 might be more like it.

Its easy to show, for example, that there is a correlation between health and wealth. Consider this utube from from global health specialist Hans Rosling.

What you’ll see is that the west made huge gains in health and wealth before 1900 without ubiquitous vaccinations. From 1900 to 1960 the west continued to make huge gains in health and wealth –with vaccination–while the rest of the world wealth gains remained stagnant. But after 1960–the health and wealth of much of the rest of the world moved in lock step upward. There is no initial lag of either health or wealth which would suggest that either health or wealth was preponderantly causal.

(Now I am not advocating that the Gates Foundation do anything other than what it is doing currently. Vaccines save lives. Rather I’m suggesting that if America’s other billionaires became involved in research to collapse the cost of water and power–their work–because it increases the wealth of the world (which in turn funds health advances)– would be a proper adjunct to the work of the Gates Foundation.)

Even though Gates is more interested in charity with regards to poor countries–for several years he has recognized the importance of the energy to not only poor people — but also people all over the world.

Gates in the –energy ventures article — has said that

“I guess in a vague sense we can say that we want energy that costs, say, a quarter of what coal or electricity does. Why? Because that’s what it will take to raise the poorest of the poor in world to reasonable living standards. But it will also raise the living standards of the rest of the world.”

Energy costs directly effect productivity. The more productive people are the wealthier they are. The wealthier they are–the more they can afford things like health care. This is true for everyone.

Gates is doing some work along those lines –separately from his foundation work. Several years ago he invested in Sapphire Energy — an algae based biofuel company. As well he has invested in a unique nuclear reactor that has been developed by a company called TerraPower.

More recently reports are that he has invested in a software company called NEOS GeoSolutions which promises to take much of the guesswork out of onshore oil and gas exploration.

Just last month he invested in Liquid Metal Battery — a company that promises to store and release electricity in volume from intermittent sources like solar and wind.

While the cost of energy affects topline wealth–the cost of water reflects bottom line wealth. (For example, the cost of food represents maybe 8% of Americans home costs–however, food represents 40% of costs for say, people in Egypt.)

All the greatest advances in power and water in the 20th century were top down advances incubated mostly in the US and then moved to the rest of the world. This is true for oil-gas/internal combustion engine and hydro electric power, nuclear electric power/electric motors. The Hoover Dam in the USA provided the template for dams worldwide. According to T Boone Pickens this will likely be the case with fracking natural gas (and still more recently fracking oil). Because of new technologies the US now has the equivalent of three times the reserves of the Saudis. As happened with earlier water power technologies, hydraulic fracking will likely go overseas too after it has done its work here in the USA. However, except for natural gas temporarily this energy will not come in at anywhere near at the price points equivalent to 1/4-1/2 the cost of electricity from coal. That is oil & natural gas in the USA seem poised to become plentiful again but not cheap. Even Mr Pickens says that fracking natural gas (and oil) is a temporary solution.

According to Gates if the USA does not lead in research –it doesn’t happen elsewhere.

But unfortunately, when the U.S. doesn’t step up on basic research, the world at large doesn’t tend to step up and fill the gap. I wish they would, but they don’t.

So its not disingenuous or cute to say that charity begins at home.

Gates writes another article here in which he maintains that the key to energy success is distributed innovation.

To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go

I think that Donald Rumsfeld used an intellectual construct that can be applied to this distributed approach to research.

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Known knowns are things we know we know. This would represent direct investment in companies and research that furthers the goal of cheaper water and energy. This is what Bill Gates and many other investors are currently doing. They find a tech that looks promising and invest in it.

Known unknowns: that is things we know we don’t know. Wouldn’t it be nice to say “Ok we have this problem and we will pay this much for a solution. A number of web sites have grown up in the last couple years that bring together Research organizations and problem solvers like InnoCentive, YourEncore, & NineSigma. There’s a lot of seriously interesting ways this can be used to accelerate energy and water research. Consider this article by Wired Magazine.

Unknown unknowns. The problem with any directed research is that its directed. Many times solutions can come from unknown directions. What’s the best way to harvest this?

With prizes.

Newt Gingrich in 2001 fleshed out this idea by saying.

Historically, prizes have been used to stimulate breakthrough technology. Prizes are particularly effective motivators of entrepreneurs, who use investment capital to test their ideas and generally invest four times the value of a prize to win the competition. The X-Prize Foundation was recently established to manage such prizes as the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Suborbital Spaceflight, the $10 million Archon X-Prize for Genomics, and the $20 million Google X-Prize to land and successfully operate an unmanned rover vehicle on the Moon. Such prizes must be big, even huge, to produce meaningful discoveries on a grand scale. Perhaps a prize of $1 billion could be the impetus for a 500-miles-per-gallon car. Robust incentives and prizes might produce a hydrogen-based economy much faster than would conventional R&D.

Gingrich was low in his calculations as to how much research the X-Prize actually produced. According to this ingenious article by Tim Hartford called called Cash For Answers–When the competition was completed:

The X Prize foundation claims that the Ansari X Prize directly stimulated $100m of spending on research and development, 10 times the value of the prize itself. That is clever, and for a handful of sexy challenges it is likely to be a trick that can be repeated.

So what do I suggest? What’s the best fastest way to produce energy & water miracles.

I would suggest doing all three.

1.)Continue to invest in start ups with promising energy and water technology.
2.)Put out bids online for anyone to solve specific energy and water problems
3.)Run high stakes water and energy contests. These contests would be as well publicized as American idol. So that the contest winners get get fame as well as fortune. But also contest contributors are honored.

I would suggest desalination contests: for desalination plants, pipelines and semi permiable membranes.

For energy, Mr Gates would have a better idea as to how to target prizes for energy. He mentioned three at the 2010 Ted conference: molten salt (thorium)reactors, TerraPower, portable nuclear reactors. More recently he has mentioned others.

The only thing I would add to this list is…. research funding and a prize should be given for the first internal combustion engine based on conversion of sodium ion (Na+) to sodium (Na) in water H20. This wouldn’t be used to power a car. Rather this could be used to power water pumps for pumping rivers of water inland. (For more info on this email me at ckilmer at gmail dot com.) As well Mr. Gates mentions here that the key to materials research (by which get to energy and water innovations)is to accelerate the power of computer modeling. I have found a way to do this. Its pretty obvious so likely there already other players working on it. But if not again see me at ckilmer at you know gmail dot com)

More generally Mr Gates has put the benchmark goal of producing energy at 1/2- 1/4 the cost of coal based electricity. So prizes might be given to walk down the cost.

DARPA has been a good at running prize programs so they might be consulted for running the program. The WateReuse association is well embedded in the desalination community so they would be good to publicizing efforts to the desalination community. Dancing with the stars might be consulted to somehow make the whole show sexy. The media production of the show should be world wide.

Now I began this article with the mission statement:

The healthy growth of mankind depends on continuously decreasing the cost and increasing the availability of water and energy everywhere.

However, I only talked about the next great leap forward.

This is a problem.

Likely in only ten years (but no more than 20 years) the basic science and technology for collapsing the cost of transported fresh water and energy will be developed. Mr Gates — and all the billionaires who follow his lead– who start out with the intent to do good –will wind up doing well.

What then?

Well then the idea would be to use the profits to fund a foundation whose mission statement is:

The healthy growth of mankind depends on continuously decreasing the cost and increasing the availability of water and energy everywhere.

This foundation would fund the R&D that makes for cheap water and energy on the moon and mars and in space.

How would you institutionalize Mr Gates passion?
“Understanding science and pushing the boundaries of science”

To handle known knowns You might have a bicameral research funding agency. Where one branch was based off of DARPA and the other was based off of crowdsourcing scientific research. To handle known unknowns you might farm out specific problems to be solved on the internet. For unknown unknowns third group would organize well publicized competitions

Does this sound like science fiction? Very well. Thank you Mr Assimov for your inspiration. And yeah. Thank you Mr Gates for your passion & vision.