Bill Gates has been providing millions of dollars to fund academic research in energy and climate, some of which touches on geoengineering, or manipulating Earth's natural systems to counteract global warming.
Citing atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, Science Magazine's online blog on Tuesday reported that Gates has put at least $4.5 million of his own money over the last three years into university research.
Caldeira, who is an advocate for research in geoengineering, serves as an adviser in how the money should be dispensed. Caldeira also works for Intellectual Ventures, an investment and intellectual property licensing company founded by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft. Myhrvold and Gates have funded a company called TerraPower, which is trying to develop a breakthrough in nuclear power.
Gates on the need for carbon-neutral energy source
After remaining fairly quiet on the topic of energy and climate since leaving Microsoft, Gates last week indicated that he is spending a great deal of effort researching energy. He also told a reporter that he invested $20 million in Vinod Khosla's green business fund.
In the past, Gates has shown an interest in what could be called geoengineering, a topic that's controversial in academic and policy circles because of the potential dangers. Gates, Myhrvold, Caldeira, and others applied for an "environment alteration" patent in 2008 for calming the effects of hurricanes by using vessels to pump warm water from the surface down to colder areas.
Some ideas proposed for geoengineering include shooting sulfur-based particles into the high atmosphere to block incoming radiation from the sun, or dumping iron into the ocean to stimulate algae growth and sequester carbon dioxide. Some scientists advocate pursuing research in this area in case efforts to cut greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are ineffective.
In a comment to the Science article, Caldeira said that Gates' money was aimed broadly at climate and energy research, but not specifically at geoengineering.
"The funds that I receive through this avenue primarily are helping to support several post-docs in my group doing a wide variety of work, some of which is related to intentional intervention in the climate system, but much of which is related to broader climate and energy concerns," Caldeira wrote.
Some of the funded research included an assessment of high-altitude wind power and ocean acidification.
In an interview last week, Gates said that scientists and entrepreneurs should be pursuing technologies that achieve cheap energy with "zero carbon" emissions.
Gates representative John Pinette told Science that he "views geoengineering as a way to buy time but it's not a solution to the problem" of climate change.