Bill Gates-backed startup makes breakthrough in solar energy
Heliogen, a startup backed by Bill Gates, has announced successfully using mirrors and artificial intelligence to generate heat of above 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Matt Egan reported the news for CNN:
A secretive startup backed by Bill Gates has achieved a solar breakthrough aimed at saving the planet.
Heliogen, a clean energy company that emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, said it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Essentially, Heliogen created a solar oven — one capable of reaching temperatures that are roughly a quarter of what you’d find on the surface of the sun.
The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.
“We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions,” Bill Gross, Heliogen’s founder and CEO, told CNN Business. “And that’s really the holy grail.”
Heliogen, which is also backed by billionaire Los Angels Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, believes the patented technology will be able to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industry. Cement, for example, accounts for 7% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
“Bill and the team have truly now harnessed the sun,” Soon-Shiong, who also sits on the Heliogen board, told CNN Business. “The potential to humankind is enormous. … The potential to business is unfathomable.”
Adele Peters from Fast Company wrote:
A typical large steel mill might burn through 1.5 million metric tons of coal in its furnaces in a year. It hasn’t been possible to run that type of industrial process on renewable energy, because of the extremely hot temperatures required, making nearly a quarter of global emissions hard to eliminate. But new technology—which concentrates solar thermal energy to 1,000 degrees Celsius for the first time—could transform some of the most polluting industries, including steel, cement, and petrochemical production.
The technology, from a California-based startup called Heliogen, uses an array of mirrors to reflect sunlight. That’s not new, but the approach that it uses nearly doubles the amount of heat that previous solar thermal tech could produce. “It’s a little bit like an enormous magnifying glass, but it’s an enormous magnifying glass that’s computer-controlled,” says Bill Gross, founder and CEO of Heliogen.
In the past, mirrors couldn’t direct light as precisely, but computer vision and image processing have improved that process. “We have a series of high-resolution cameras look at a whole field of mirrors, and have all of them be pointing very precisely by looking at the position of the mirrors in real time. And that has never been done before.”
Todd Bishop from GeekWire noted:
The Los Angeles-based company, Heliogen, said on Tuesday morning that it achieved the high-temperature milestone at its commercial facility in Lancaster, Calif.
It described the innovation as a “major step towards solving climate change” that could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes. Such processes are thought to account for one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions.
Gates invested an undisclosed sum in the company as part of an earlier funding round, when it was known as Edisun. It’s one of many initiatives that Gates is pursuing in renewable and alternative forms of energy, from the $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund to the pursuit of next-generation nuclear power through his company TerraPower.
“These materials are everywhere in our lives but we don’t have any proven breakthroughs that will give us affordable, zero-carbon versions of them,” Gates said in a Heliogen news release. “If we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do. I’m pleased to have been an early backer of Bill Gross’s novel solar concentration technology. Its capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”