TEDGlobal 2011

Justin Hall-Tipping: Freeing energy from the grid

Filmed:

What would happen if we could generate power from our windowpanes? In this moving talk, entrepreneur Justin Hall-Tipping shows the materials that could make that possible, and how questioning our notion of 'normal' can lead to extraordinary breakthroughs.

- Science entrepreneur
Justin Hall-Tipping works on nano-energy startups -- mastering the electron to create power. Full bio

Why can't we solve these problems?
00:16
We know what they are.
00:21
Something always seems to stop us.
00:24
Why?
00:28
I remember March the 15th, 2000.
00:31
The B15 iceberg broke off the Ross Ice Shelf.
00:35
In the newspaper it said
00:39
"it was all part of a normal process."
00:42
A little bit further on in the article
00:45
it said "a loss that would normally take
00:48
the ice shelf 50-100 years to replace."
00:51
That same word, "normal,"
00:58
had two different,
01:01
almost opposite meanings.
01:03
If we walk into the B15 iceberg
01:06
when we leave here today,
01:09
we're going to bump into something
01:12
a thousand feet tall,
01:15
76 miles long,
01:17
17 miles wide,
01:21
and it's going to weigh two gigatons.
01:24
I'm sorry, there's nothing normal about this.
01:27
And yet I think it's this perspective of us
01:30
as humans to look at our world
01:33
through the lens of normal
01:36
is one of the forces
01:38
that stops us developing real solutions.
01:40
Only 90 days after this,
01:46
arguably the greatest discovery
01:49
of the last century occurred.
01:51
It was the sequencing for the first time
01:53
of the human genome.
01:55
This is the code that's in every single one
01:58
of our 50 trillion cells
02:02
that makes us who we are and what we are.
02:04
And if we just take one cell's worth
02:08
of this code and unwind it,
02:10
it's a meter long,
02:15
two nanometers thick.
02:19
Two nanometers is 20 atoms in thickness.
02:21
And I wondered,
02:25
what if the answer to some of our biggest problems
02:27
could be found in the smallest of places,
02:30
where the difference between what is
02:33
valuable and what is worthless
02:35
is merely the addition or subtraction
02:37
of a few atoms?
02:39
And what
02:41
if we could get exquisite control
02:43
over the essence of energy,
02:46
the electron?
02:48
So I started to go around the world
02:51
finding the best and brightest scientists
02:53
I could at universities
02:55
whose collective discoveries have the chance
02:57
to take us there,
02:59
and we formed a company to build
03:01
on their extraordinary ideas.
03:03
Six and a half years later,
03:05
a hundred and eighty researchers,
03:07
they have some amazing developments
03:09
in the lab,
03:11
and I will show you three of those today,
03:13
such that we can stop burning up our planet
03:15
and instead,
03:18
we can generate all the energy we need
03:20
right where we are,
03:23
cleanly, safely, and cheaply.
03:25
Think of the space that we spend
03:28
most of our time.
03:30
A tremendous amount of energy
03:32
is coming at us from the sun.
03:34
We like the light that comes into the room,
03:36
but in the middle of summer,
03:38
all that heat is coming into the room
03:40
that we're trying to keep cool.
03:42
In winter, exactly the opposite is happening.
03:44
We're trying to heat up
03:46
the space that we're in,
03:47
and all that is trying to get out through the window.
03:49
Wouldn't it be really great
03:51
if the window could flick back the heat
03:55
into the room if we needed it
03:57
or flick it away before it came in?
03:59
One of the materials that can do this
04:01
is a remarkable material, carbon,
04:03
that has changed its form in this incredibly beautiful reaction
04:08
where graphite is blasted by a vapor,
04:11
and when the vaporized carbon condenses,
04:16
it condenses back into a different form:
04:20
chickenwire rolled up.
04:23
But this chickenwire carbon,
04:26
called a carbon nanotube,
04:28
is a hundred thousand times smaller
04:30
than the width of one of your hairs.
04:32
It's a thousand times
04:35
more conductive than copper.
04:37
How is that possible?
04:40
One of the things about working at the nanoscale
04:45
is things look and act very differently.
04:49
You think of carbon as black.
04:52
Carbon at the nanoscale
04:58
is actually transparent
05:01
and flexible.
05:04
And when it's in this form,
05:09
if I combine it with a polymer
05:11
and affix it to your window
05:14
when it's in its colored state,
05:17
it will reflect away all heat and light,
05:20
and when it's in its bleached state
05:23
it will let all the light and heat through
05:25
and any combination in between.
05:28
To change its state, by the way,
05:31
takes two volts from a millisecond pulse.
05:34
And once you've changed its state, it stays there
05:37
until you change its state again.
05:40
As we were working on this incredible
05:43
discovery at University of Florida,
05:45
we were told to go down the corridor
05:47
to visit another scientist,
05:50
and he was working
05:52
on a pretty incredible thing.
05:54
Imagine
05:56
if we didn't have to rely
05:58
on artificial lighting to get around at night.
06:00
We'd have to see at night, right?
06:06
This lets you do it.
06:12
It's a nanomaterial, two nanomaterials,
06:14
a detector and an imager.
06:17
The total width of it
06:20
is 600 times smaller
06:22
than the width of a decimal place.
06:24
And it takes all the infrared available at night,
06:27
converts it into an electron
06:31
in the space of two small films,
06:34
and is enabling you to play an image
06:37
which you can see through.
06:40
I'm going to show to TEDsters,
06:47
the first time, this operating.
06:50
Firstly I'm going to show you
06:52
the transparency.
06:54
Transparency is key.
06:57
It's a film that you can look through.
07:01
And then I'm going to turn the lights out.
07:04
And you can see, off a tiny film,
07:07
incredible clarity.
07:10
As we were working on this, it dawned on us:
07:14
this is taking infrared radiation, wavelengths,
07:18
and converting it into electrons.
07:22
What if we combined it
07:25
with this?
07:31
Suddenly you've converted energy
07:34
into an electron on a plastic surface
07:37
that you can stick on your window.
07:41
But because it's flexible,
07:44
it can be on any surface whatsoever.
07:46
The power plant of tomorrow
07:50
is no power plant.
07:53
We talked about generating and using.
08:00
We want to talk about storing energy,
08:03
and unfortunately
08:05
the best thing we've got going
08:07
is something that was developed in France
08:09
a hundred and fifty years ago,
08:11
the lead acid battery.
08:13
In terms of dollars per what's stored,
08:15
it's simply the best.
08:17
Knowing that we're not going to put fifty of
08:19
these in our basements to store our power,
08:21
we went to a group at University of Texas at Dallas,
08:23
and we gave them this diagram.
08:25
It was in actually a diner
08:27
outside of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
08:29
We said, "Could you build this?"
08:31
And these scientists,
08:33
instead of laughing at us, said, "Yeah."
08:35
And what they built was eBox.
08:37
EBox is testing new nanomaterials
08:40
to park an electron on the outside,
08:42
hold it until you need it,
08:45
and then be able to release it and pass it off.
08:48
Being able to do that means
08:51
that I can generate energy
08:55
cleanly, efficiently and cheaply
08:58
right where I am.
09:01
It's my energy.
09:03
And if I don't need it, I can convert it
09:06
back up on the window
09:08
to energy, light, and beam it,
09:10
line of site, to your place.
09:12
And for that I do not need
09:15
an electric grid between us.
09:18
The grid of tomorrow is no grid,
09:21
and energy, clean efficient energy,
09:25
will one day be free.
09:29
If you do this, you get the last puzzle piece,
09:36
which is water.
09:40
Each of us, every day,
09:46
need just eight glasses of this,
09:51
because we're human.
09:56
When we run out of water,
09:59
as we are in some parts of the world
10:01
and soon to be in other parts of the world,
10:03
we're going to have to get this from the sea,
10:05
and that's going to require us to build desalination plants.
10:08
19 trillion dollars is what we're going to have to spend.
10:11
These also require tremendous amounts of energy.
10:14
In fact, it's going to require twice the world's
10:16
supply of oil to run the pumps
10:18
to generate the water.
10:20
We're simply not going to do that.
10:23
But in a world where energy is freed
10:25
and transmittable
10:27
easily and cheaply, we can take any water
10:29
wherever we are
10:31
and turn it into whatever we need.
10:33
I'm glad to be working with
10:37
incredibly brilliant and kind scientists,
10:39
no kinder than
10:41
many of the people in the world,
10:43
but they have a magic look at the world.
10:45
And I'm glad to see their discoveries
10:48
coming out of the lab and into the world.
10:50
It's been a long time in coming for me.
10:53
18 years ago,
10:57
I saw a photograph in the paper.
11:00
It was taken by Kevin Carter
11:04
who went to the Sudan
11:06
to document their famine there.
11:08
I've carried this photograph with me
11:10
every day since then.
11:12
It's a picture of a little girl dying of thirst.
11:17
By any standard this is wrong.
11:27
It's just wrong.
11:32
We can do better than this.
11:38
We should do better than this.
11:41
And whenever I go round
11:44
to somebody who says,
11:46
"You know what, you're working on something that's too difficult.
11:48
It'll never happen. You don't have enough money.
11:50
You don't have enough time.
11:53
There's something much more interesting around the corner,"
11:56
I say, "Try saying that to her."
11:59
That's what I say in my mind. And I just say
12:01
"thank you," and I go on to the next one.
12:03
This is why we have to solve our problems,
12:06
and I know the answer as to how
12:09
is to be able to get exquisite control
12:14
over a building block of nature,
12:18
the stuff of life:
12:21
the simple electron.
12:23
Thank you.
12:25
(Applause)
12:27

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Justin Hall-Tipping - Science entrepreneur
Justin Hall-Tipping works on nano-energy startups -- mastering the electron to create power.

Why you should listen

Some of our most serious planetary worries revolve around energy and power -- controlling it, paying for it, and the consequences of burning it. Justin Hall-Tipping had an epiphany about energy after seeing footage of a chunk of ice the size of his home state (Connecticut) falling off Antarctica into the ocean, and decided to focus on science to find new forms of energy. A longtime investor, he formed Nanoholdings  to work closely with universities and labs who are studying new forms of nano-scale energy in the four sectors of the energy economy: generation, transmission, storage and conservation.

Nanotech as a field is still very young (the National Science Foundation says it's "at a level of development similar to that of computer technology in the 1950s") and nano-energy in particular holds tremendous promise.

He says: "For the first time in human history, we actually have the ability to pick up an atom and place it the way we want. Some very powerful things can happen when you can do that."

More profile about the speaker
Justin Hall-Tipping | Speaker | TED.com