Solar breakthrough in Bill Gates-back technology innovation

Tech startup Heliogen reveals their secret success: combining mirrors and AI to concentrate solar energy.

Solar breakthrough in Bill Gates-back technology innovation

This Tuesday, clean energy company Heliogen announced a technological innovation in the field of solar energy. By combining a field of mirrors with artificial intelligence, Heliogen has been able to reflect sunlight that concentrates energy and generates extreme temperatures – above 1000 degrees Celsius.

For comparison, Heliogen’s concentrated solar energy is equivalent to a quarter of temperatures found on the sun. Temperatures this high are required in the production of industrial-grade materials such as cement, glass and steel. Heliogen’s technological innovation provide a clean energy alternative to an industry responsible for extreme carbon emissions. For example, the production of cement accounts for 7% of global CO2 emissions.

Benefits of Heliogen’s solar technology

Benefits of Heliogen's solar technology

Heliogen’s “solar oven” can thus supersede methods of production that were once fossil-fuel dependent. In the words of Heliogen CEO, Bill Gross, “We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions”. The innovation is desirable because sunlight is a carbon-free source of energy.

Technologies utilising concentrated solar have existed before now. For example, it has been used to provide the electricity powering drills needed for oil in Oman. However, the industrial sector has not yet taken up solar energy for the production of materials such as steel. This is because, until now, solar energy has not been able to provide the extreme heat needed for industry processes.

Artificial Intelligence in solar technologies

This is where artificial intelligence comes in. By combining computer vision software and automatic edge detection, with other AI technologies, Heliogen has been able to train a field of mirrors to reflect solar beams to a single point. This generates so much heat that, in the future, the technology could be applied to the production of clean hydrogen at an immense scale. Such carbon-free hydrogen could then power trucks, aeroplanes, and other industrial grade vehicles and technologies.

“The only way to compete is to be extremely clever in how you use your materials. And by using software, we’re able to do that,” Gross said.

At current, Heliogen’s focus is on solar power as a source of renewable energy. The biggest issue facing the application of solar technologies is that the sun doesn’t shine 24/7. Such limitations will impede industrial companies with the constant need for heat. But Heliogen has anticipated this need with the development of storage systems.

Solar technologies and the future

Solar technologies and the future

The development of renewable energy-based technologies is also salient in combating the climate crisis facing the world at present. Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong has backed Heliogen, too, observing “Bill and the team have truly now harnessed the sun”. He notes that the technology is impressive because, with the combination of solar power and AI, “The potential to humankind is enormous. … The potential to business is unfathomable.”

Heliogen have plans to go public after succeeding in the large-scale application of their technology. Soon-Shiong argues that such innovations in the renewable sector can’t come soon enough, given the pressures mounted by global warming: “This is an existential issue for your children, for my children and our grandchildren”.

Changing the world through solar technologies

Changing the world through solar technologies

However, pioneering the technology isn’t the end to the battle against fossil fuels. Heliogen will also have to convince the heaviest carbon-emitting industry sectors to abandon the fossil fuels they have used to sustain their operations. However, Heliogen has a simple selling point: sunlight is free. Even an industry dependent on non-renewable sources of energy, such as fossil fuels, have to pay for their energy. That’s not the case with clean-energy sources such as sunlight. In addition, Heliogen’s application of AI is already economical, enabling industries to operate without fossils fuels and added manpower.

Gross put it simply: “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”.

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