Los Angeles-based startup Heliogen, backed by Bill Gates and AOL founder Steve Case just announced that it has found a way to replace fossil fuels in industrial plants. Those plants produce more than 20 percent of the world's carbon emissions, but Heliogen's new concentrated solar technology may change that. It can create heat over 1,000 degrees Celsius, potentially replacing much of the fossil fuels these plants currently use.
You wouldn't think that making something really, really, really hot would be the best way to fight climate change. But it is, because the production of steel, cement, and petrochemicals among others requires heating them to very high temperatures. Up till now, the only way to achieve this was with fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil.
For decades, the solar industry has been trying to produce the high temperatures needed for such manufacturing with concentrated solar--basically a very much larger version of the experiment you probably did as a child, starting a fire using sunlight and a magnifying glass. Concentrated solar companies have traditionally used hundreds of mirrors to reflect the sun's beams onto a single spot. It requires a great deal of precision and engineering skill to determine the precise angle of each mirror in order to point the beam at exactly the right spot, and then to keep changing the mirror's position as the sun moves across the sky. Despite its best efforts, the concentrated solar industry was never able to create temperatures higher than 600 degrees Celsius, which is certainly very hot, but not hot enough for things like steel or cement manufacture.
Heliogen's breakthrough is that, rather than trying to predict precisely where the sun's beams will land, it uses cameras to observe where sunbeams are going and make minute adjustments several times per second in order to keep the mirrors pointed in precisely the right direction. Using this approach, Heliogen says it's been able to achieve temperatures of more than 1,000 Celsius. And that was on its first try. The company believes it can produce temperatures above 1,500 Celsius--enough to split water molecules and produce hydrogen fuel. That could solve hydrogen fuel's biggest problem, which is that the energy needed to produce it negates any environmental gains from using it.
Cement alone contributes 8 percent of greenhouse gases.
"I don't know how many people will understand how significant breaking 1,000 C is," Heliogen founder Bill Gross told GeekWire. Gross is a serial entrepreneur who also founded the tech incubator Idealab. [Disclosure: I am also a GeekWire contributor.] Here's why Gross said getting above 1,000 using solar is such a big deal: "There's all these things that happen above 1,000 C. Cement is made above 1,000 C. Steel is made above 1,000 C. Hydrogen is made above 1,000 C." But, he added, even if the lay person isn't particularly excited by what Heliogen has achieved, "In the industry, it's going to be really, really spectacular." He added that cement production alone accounts for 8 percent of global CO2 emissions so a switch to concentrated solar in that industry alone would have a huge impact.
Gross said he was inspired to start Heliogen after attending Bill Gates' 2010 TEDx talk in Long Beach, California, "Innovating to zero!" In the talk, Gates said that if he could be granted a single wish for the next 50 years, it would be for someone to invent a technology that would lower the cost of energy and eliminate CO2 emissions at the same time. Afterward, Gross went up to Gates and expressed his interest in working on such a technology. Gates invited Gross to Seattle for a brainstorming session during which Gates and Gross bounced around ideas with other Gates Foundation leaders. "We talked about all the different ways that this could happen, and that was the beginning of thinking through the different technical challenges and ways to pull this off," Gross said. "And he's just been fantastic. Of course he's going around the world telling everybody about this."
Heliogen's technological breakthrough depends in part on the growing availability and affordability of GPU, or graphic processing units, something that gamers need to play today's graphically intense games. So if Heliogen succeeds in its mission to replace fossil fuels in high-heat manufacturing and eliminate a signficant portion of carbon emissions? You may have kids playing Fortnite to thank.