Bill Gates-backed startup announces breakthrough in solar energy

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Heliogen's solar mirror farm can generate heat 25 percent as hot as the sun.
Image: Heliogen

On Tuesday, clean energy startup Heliogen announced a breakthrough in solar energy. The company has developed a way to concentrate sunlight and generate extreme heat, which is necessary for many industrial processes. Heliogen uses mirrors and artificial intelligence to conjure up temperatures north of 1,000 degrees Celsius.

The Bill Gates-backed company has remained under the radar until now. However, its new breakthrough is creating excitement in the clean energy community as it has the potential to reduce fossil fuel dependence. Today, we use fossil fuels to make cement, steel, glass, and other widely used materials. 

With Heliogen, we could potentially replace carbon-emitting fuel sources with clean solar energy. Cement production alone is responsible for seven percent of global CO2 emissions. “We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions,” says Heliogen CEO and founder Bill Gross. 

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Heliogen’s Secret

Heliogen uses concentrated solar power, which is not a new concept. Companies have used the technique in the past to generate energy to drill for oil, produce electricity, and create heat. However, no one has not been able to create high enough temperatures to make steel and cement until now.

Heliogen relies on a combination of artificial intelligence capabilities, including computer vision and automatic edge detection. The startup trains fields of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a single point. The result is temperatures around 25 percent of those found on the sun’s surface. 

What is even more impressive is that Heliogen achieved its breakthrough the same day that its mirror plant was turned on. The team is already looking ahead to what’s next. Heliogen says its mirror fields generate so much heat that they could potentially produce clean hydrogen in the future.

Attracting Attention

Heliogen has garnered attention and investments from many high-profile entrepreneurs. The startup is supported by both Bill Gates and Patrick Soon-Shiong, the LA-based billionaire who owns the Los Angeles Times. Soon-Shiong described Heliogen’s discovery well by saying, “Bill and the team have truly now harnessed the sun. The potential to humankind is enormous.”

Gates jumped at the opportunity to support Heliogen after learning of the company’s disruptive potential. Concrete is necessary for so much of society’s infrastructure today. Cement production helps build homes, schools, and hospitals, which represent one-fifth of total global emissions

Next Steps for Heliogen

One of the biggest challenges with solar energy is that the sun is not always out. Industrial processes require consistent fuel throughout the entire year. Heliogen plans to use energy storage systems that are capable of maintaining the solar energy it produces for cloudy days.

The next step in Heliogen’s journey is figuring out how to scale up its process. The startup wants to prove that it can reliably fuel large-scale applications, like steelmaking, before going public. Moving forward requires additional capital, which is why Heliogen is working on a private funding round.

Additionally, the company is in discussions with potential clients for its technology. Heliogen leans on its AI capabilities and the free nature of solar energy to keep costs down for buyers. CEO Bill Gross summarizes, “If we go to a cement company and say we’ll give you green heat, no CO2, but we’ll also save you money, then it becomes a no-brainer.”