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Bill Gates of Microsoft envisions fighting hurricanes by manipulating the sea
by Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday July 15, 2009, 7:11 AM
If you thought domination of the world's software market was cool, get a load of Bill Gates' next technological vision: giant ocean-going tubs that fight hurricanes by draining warm water from the surface to the depths, through a long tube.
A second tube could simultaneously suck cool water from the depths to the surface.
Microsoft founder Gates and a dozen other scientists and engineers have a patent pending for deploying such vessels, which they say would collect water through waves breaking over the walls of the tub. Some variations have the water moving through turbines on their way down, which would in turn generate electricity to suck up the cooler water.
As many as 200 vessels could be placed strategically in the predicted path of a hurricane, and they could be designed to be reused or to sink in place and decompose underwater. The vessels could be moved into place by towing or by dropping from airplanes.
A second patent application describes how part or all of the cost of building and maintaining the hurricane-killer ships could be raised by selling insurance to coastal residents whose risk would be reduced by using the new system.
The hurricane-killing ideas, contained in a half-dozen related patent applications, were made public by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Friday, with Gates listed as one of the inventors on each. The applications were submitted by Searete LLC, a subsidiary of Intellectual Ventures of Bellevue, Wash., and created by former Microsoft executives to both buy up existing patents and develop patent applications for new ideas.
The hurricane-killer system isn't expected to be rolled out any time soon, however, according to a posting on the Intellectual Ventures Lab Web site.
Paul "Pablos" Holman, whose job title is listed as "hacker, " said the system would be feasible only if other responses to more active hurricane seasons or more intense hurricanes caused by global warming do not work.
"This type of technology is not something humankind would try as a 'Plan A' or 'Plan B, ' " he wrote. "These inventions are a 'Plan C' where humans decide that we have exhausted all of our behavior changing or alternative energy options and need to rely on mitigation technologies.
"If our planet is in this severe situation, then our belief is that we should not be starting from scratch at investigating mitigation options, " he wrote.
The water-moving vessels would not be limited to killing hurricanes, however. The applications also suggest the "wave induced downwelling" could stir up nutrient-rich sediment on ocean floors to promote plant and animal growth in environmentally-degraded areas.
"This may be used for developing wildlife preservation areas, wildlife recreation areas, restoring wildlife destroyed by natural or man-made causes, etc., " according to the patent application.
Another proposal calls for moving nutrients and other material from the ocean floor to the surface to promote growth of algae to trap carbon as a tool in fighting global warming.
Intellectual Ventures was created in 2000 by Nathan Myhrvold, who was Gates' chief technology officer at Microsoft, and Edward Jung, who was Microsoft's chief software architect. In a May article on the unveiling of Intellectual Venture's own patent laboratory, the Seattle Times reported that the firm has earned $1 billion in licensing revenue from patents it has acquired and about $80 million from patents for ideas it has created since its founding in 2000.
"We consider ourselves basically an invention business, " said Marelaine Dykes, a spokeswoman for the company. "We're a non-practicing entity, a non-manufacturing entity because we don't produce products, per se."
But the new laboratory does produce prototypes of some of its new inventions, she said, and subsidiaries like Searete are being formed to handle a variety of categories of the patents held or developed by the company.
The hurricane killing plan was the product of a gathering of scientists and invention developers more than a year ago.
"These are brainstorming sessions where we come up with and develop ideas around particular topics, " she said. "We bring in smart people from all over, depending on the topic."
Gates, an investor in Intellectual Ventures, has attended several of the invention salons, resulting in his name being added to the ensuing patent applications.
Others listed on those patents include a nuclear reactor designer, an aerospace engineer who has designed reusable launch vehicles, and a climatologist researching ways of increasing water droplets in upper-level clouds to reflect sunlight into space to fight global warming.
New Orleans residents might be keen on at least two other ideas for which Gates and his allies have sought patents: an insulated container that can be used as a beer keg and a fence using photons -- particles of light -- to shoo mosquitoes away from homes.
For information about the patents, visit the company's Web site at