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Funded by Bill Gates, Company Develops Technology to Help Wean Mankind Off Fossil Fuels20.11.2019

The billionaire-funded startup Heliogen recently unveiled a type of solar furnace capable of focusing the energy of the Sun, offering heavy industry a cleaner way of reaching temperatures over 1000°C.

Widely used to generate electricity, solar panels have also been utilized to generate heat, but the latter application has not yet found widespread adoption in industry, the key reason being the panels’ inability to reach high enough temperatures to smelt steel or make cement. In the meantime, however, nothing seems to indicate that mankind will soon stop building new houses or skyscrapers that need heating, or manufacturing means of transport that need a power source. Naturally, mass manufacturing has a pronounced, adverse effect on the environment—the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that industry is responsible for a fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Heliogen invention, however, may very well ameliorate that detrimental impact. The company recently unveiled a type of solar furnace that focuses the heat carried by sunlight using mirrors and AI algorithms. The technology that powers the furnace allows users to harness clean energy in a much more effective manner than ever before. Seeing its incredible promise, Bill Gates decided to invest in the startup. The American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Microsoft co-founder is widely known for supporting innovative ideas like Heliogen’s. 

“If you take a thousand mirrors and have them align exactly to a single point, you can achieve extremely, extremely high temperatures,” explained Bill Gross, Heliogen founder, in an interview with CNN.

Heliogen’s solutions is based on image recognition and automatic edge detection algorithms. The data they produce are then used to train an AI that will control a group of sunlight-reflecting mirrors, constantly monitoring their direction and angle to allow the furnace to produce extremely high temperatures, in excess of 1000°C.

The Heliogen furnace could be used in the mass manufacture of cement, steel, glass, and other industrial resources. It has the potential to revolutionize the energy and manufacturing industries the world over.

“We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions", continued Gross, later adding “And that's really the holy grail."

The temperatures produced by the Heliogen furnace are so high, that the technology could, in the future, be used in large-scale production of clean hydrogen to be used as a power source for land vehicles and aircraft. Gross argues that devising an environmentally-friendly way of producing clean hydrogen could actually change the “rules of the game” in the future. 

One (significant) challenge the Heliogen technology still has to face is the fact that the weather can’t be controlled. With overcast skies, the furnace won’t be able to produce high temperatures. The unpredictability of weather conditions might pose a problem for the manufacturing industry, which, after all, cannot afford to halt operations on a whim. The startup plans to overcome this hurdle by employing highly-efficient energy storage solutions, which could continue supplying uninterrupted power to industry on rainy or overcast days. Convincing large corporations to embrace and invest a novel, mostly untested power source, however, could be another problem that the startup will have to tackle to be successful.

Heliogen - Replacing Fuels with Sunlight
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