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Inside the lab where Bill Gates’ TerraPower is inventing the…

TerraPower test assembly

A panoramic view of TerraPower’s laboratory shows a full-scale fuel assembly test stand at the center of the frame – with lab facility manager Brian Morris pointing out details toward the left of the frame. The circle that’s painted on the floor indicates how big the nuclear containment vessel would be. Click on the picture for a larger version. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 90’s crush of traffic, a decade-old startup founded by Bill Gates is running tests aimed at building the next generation of nuclear reactors.

You’ll find no more than a smidgen of radioactive material at the privately funded venture, known as TerraPower. But if Microsoft’s co-founder and TerraPower’s other leaders have their way, the technologies being pioneered at the 10,000-square-foot lab could boost electrical grids around the world.

We got a rare look inside the lab, which is housed alongside facilities for Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, and we heard from TerraPower’s executives about the connection between Gates’ past as a co-founder of Microsoft and his vision for future energy innovation.

“If you think about Bill Gates’ accomplishments in computing, we’re really trying to repeat that for nuclear energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “We think nuclear is overdue for technology demonstrations.”

That may sound strange in an age when so much attention has been focused on solar and wind power, but Levesque argues that nuclear power has a big role to play in the transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free sources of energy.

“We see a world that has continued penetration of renewables, and we think that’s a very good thing for the climate,” he said. “But we do think there’s a limit to renewables penetration … where you’re going to need some baseload generation. If it’s going to be carbon-free, I think it has to be nuclear.”