With Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold Out to Create “Invention Capital” Industry—and Stop Hurricanes, Malaria, and Global Warming in the Process (Part 2)

8/26/08Follow @gthuang

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and we acquired the patent. We recruited the best guys in the field to be inventors with us, and we’ve done a ton of inventing in metamaterials. Now, metamaterials is a zero billion dollar market. You could write an article 5 or 10 years from now saying, look at those idiots, they spent all this time betting on this crazy thing. It may well be true, but we got in early enough, we got fundamentally interesting ideas—metamaterials seems to be powerful enough—it’d be a little like betting on the transistor in 1957. It would have been a good bet. We’re hoping there’s something here. As long as we don’t put all our eggs in one basket, that’s fine.

X: This is getting a bit abstract. Metamaterials have gotten attention recently because they might possibly be used to create an invisibility cloak. Is that the kind of invention you’re talking about?

NM: Invisibility—that’s one of the cool things you can do. This is an idea that literally could have happened in 1870, and why didn’t it? Eh, who knows? It’s pure classical physics. As it stands, it just happened a few years ago, there was huge controversy, people saying it was fundamentally impossible. Well, it turns out it isn’t impossible at all. So that whole thing is a terrific lesson. It’s the ability to create a negative index of refraction or gradient lenses of bizarre properties such as “transform optics” [related to the technical area of conformal mappings].

We’ve come up with a couple cool applications for invisibility, and we have some patents there. The trick there is, literal invisibility in the “Harry Potter” or “Romulan cloaking” sense is too hard and there’s not that big a market at the moment. What are other things you could do which would match the fact that this will be difficult and expensive, and you can probably only get it in a limited frequency band? We’ve come up with some. The obvious thing is how to avoid getting speeding tickets. But there’s more commercially interesting things than that. But [our patents] are not filed on them yet.

X: What about some other really ambitious projects?

NM: We’re working on hurricane stopping. We’re doing a lot of computer modeling. It’s so simple that it basically has to work. We’re doing the modeling just to make it really clear. Here’s the fundamental idea. Hurricanes occur when you get a very hot layer of surface water. I think most hurricane researchers would tell you 26 [degrees] Celsius is the cutoff. If the surface water never gets above 26, or 26.5, you get no hurricanes. And if it gets hotter than that, you get hurricanes.

Now the reason you get hot surface water is a funny runaway effect, like upside-down convection. Convection in a pot works because you heat the bottom of the pot, the water gets really hot, therefore it rises, and as it rises it stirs the water up. But if you heat water from the top, it doesn’t work—the top gets light, it doesn’t want to sink, it stays there. So that creates a funny temperature profile that’s stable against further convection. So if you could just stir the water, you’d have no hurricanes. So then the question is, can you come up with really cheap, very large-scale-effective ways of stirring the water and keeping the [surface] temperature low? The answer is yes.

We have a bunch of geo-engineering ideas. That’s a fascinating field. Both hurricane amelioration and geo-engineering are very controversial. In climate change, there are disaster scenarios that are plausible. Not proven, but plausible. The Greenland ice sheet collapses, the Gulf Stream stops, and the world goes to hell in a handbasket. If those are real, then don’t talk to me about conservation. There’s no possible way to conserve, or reduce or cut back or cap and trade. If there’s any real probability that a disaster will happen, then it will happen even if we stop today, because there’s such an overshoot in the system. If we stopped emitting carbon today, we’d have a century overshoot, and we’re not going to stop today.

So the only way to stop one of these disaster scenarios is with a geo-engineering intervention. It turns out we have three completely different ways of reversing global warming. Three totally different effects, each one of which … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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