Company backed by Bill Gates claims concentrated solar power breakthrough

A solar energy tech company founded by serial entrepreneur and inventor Bill Gross — and backed by investors including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — says it has developed a way to create concentrated solar energy at temperatures hot enough to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes that contribute significantly to global carbon emissions.

Heliogen’s commercial facility in Lancaster, Calif., was able to concentrate sunlight at a temperature high enough to replace fossil fuels in industrial processes. (Heliogen Photo)

It works by using cutting-edge computer vision technology to align a large array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a precise target. The process creates immense heat, exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit), that can replace traditional fuels such as coal, gas and oil in the production of materials such as cement, steel and petrochemicals

Bill Gross is a serial entrepreneur and inventor who has been fascinated with renewable energy innovations since he was a teenager. (Photo by Loic Le Meur, via Flickr Creative Commons)

The Los Angeles-based company, Heliogen, said on Tuesday morning that it achieved the high-temperature milestone at its commercial solar thermal 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.”

In addition, Heliogen said it believes its technology is on track to ultimately produce temperatures up to 1,500 degrees Celsius, hot enough to split carbon dioxide and water to make hydrogen and other fossil-free fuels.

Gross, a Caltech alum who founded startup incubator Idealab, has been seeking innovations in renewable energy since he was a teenager in Southern California, watching cars lined up for rationed gasoline. He is working at Heliogen with a team of scientists and engineers from Caltech, MIT and other top research institutions.

He said in an interview with GeekWire that the idea for Heliogen came together in a brainstorming session with Gates, after Gross was in the audience for the Microsoft co-founder’s 2010 TED talk about the need for innovation to ensure the world’s energy future.

“When I first talked to Bill Gates about it, he was very excited,” Gross recalled. “It was a very early idea. I didn’t know if it was going to be able to work, but he was an early backer.”

How much of the world’s climate crisis does this address?

“Oh, it’s huge,” Gross said. “Cement alone is 8 percent of all global emissions, so if we can take the CO2 out of cement, that would be almost one-10th impact right there. … I think a very, very significant portion of the CO2 we put in the atmosphere can be taken out by the sun, wihh concentrating solar power and there easily there’s enough land to do it.

AOL founder Steve Case was another early investor. Heliogen said other investors include venture capital firm Neotribe and Los Angeles-based investor and entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, through his Nant Capital investment firm.  I think a very, very significant portion of the CO2 we put in the atmosphere can be taken out by the sun, and there easily there’s enough land to do it.

Concentrated solar thermal plants have been in existence for decades, generating electrical power in locales ranging from California to Spain. Such plants typically achieve temperatures no higher than 600 degrees C (1,100 degrees F), which are too low for heavy-duty industrial processes.

Some researchers have been looking into more environmentally friendly alternatives – for example, “green concrete” made from materials that can be processed using lower temperatures, or new types of steel alloys that can be produced without greenhouse gas emissions.

But if Heliogen can scale up its concentrated solar energy technology, it could offer a shortcut to emission-free processing of industrial materials.

Continue reading for edited excerpts from our interview with Bill Gross.

Q: You have been pursuing this challenge literally since you were a teenager. How would you characterize the significance of this particular breakthrough?

Bill Gross: It really is a culmination of my life’s work. I’m devoting the rest of my life to climate change, and I really hope this can make a big positive impact on it. I had been working on converting solar into useful energy for so many years, and I concluded about 10 years ago that if we could concentrate sunlight even better, then that would open up new opportunities to replace fossil fuels. And I had this early idea for a new way to do it using software.

When I first talked to Bill Gates about it, he was very excited. It was a very early idea, I didn’t know if it was going to be able to work, but he was an early backer of mine. Steve Case was also an early backer.

And then we set out on this mission to figure out a way to concentrate sunlight to a degree it never been concentrated before, and we proved that it could work with software on a small scale. And then we just completed the full large-scale commercial plant, 400 mirrors altogether on multiple acres in the desert. And we turned it on two weeks ago, and it worked even better than expected. We not only achieved more than a thousand degrees Centigrade on our very first try, but we can go much, much higher than that. We can basically achieve any temperature we want between a thousand degrees and 1500 degrees Centigrade.

And that now opens up a big new area of renewable energy for fossil fuel reduction, where previously renewable energy couldn’t be used. All of the high temperature thermal chemical reactions were sort of out of reach from concentrated solar. And now they’re in play.

So I feel like all the trials and tribulations I went through over my life, to try and figure out a better way to concentrate sunshine, have finally paid off, and we’re so excited to announce this to the world. I don’t know how many people will we understand how significant breaking 1000 C is. It is, because there’s all these things that happen above 1000 C. Cement is made above 1000 C. Steel is made above 1000 C. Hydrogen is made above 1000 C, pyrolysis of biomass happens about 1000 C. So the temperature is needed. But in the industry, it’s going to be really, really spectacular.

For 50 years, people in concentrated solar have been trying to get about 600 C and haven’t been able to, and now we’re going to announce tomorrow how we got about a 1000 C, and I think people are going to be astonished because it’s been a goal for the whole industry for a long time and it really is software, which is the angle. I think that’s why Bill was so excited about it.

Basically we are using the GPU processor on an NVIDIA card. Cryptocurrency and gaming caused the GPU to come down in price so much that we can use a GPU where everybody else in history has always used the CPU, and the GPU has so much more processing power that we can do all the real-time image recognition, ray-tracing, everything to concentrate solar to a better degree than had been done before. So we’re excited also that it’s a software-meets-hardware convergence to achieve this accomplishment.

Q: For the layperson out there, can you describe what you’re doing with the rays of the sun and these mirrors and the software?

Bill Gross:  Imagine that you have a mirror in your hand and the sun is out, and you take that mirror and you want to bounce that light to a target 100 meters away. Well, you have to hold your hand very steady and you have to point the beam very accurately, but you can reflect the sunlight with a single mirror to a target at a distance. But now imagine that mirror is 1.5 square meters in diameter, the size of a big screen TV. And you need to hold the mirror very, very flat. And now you need to hold the mirror very, very steady. And now imagine a field of 1,000 of them, each one of them pointing at a slightly different angle because everyone, every position is different in the field. So you need to reflect the sunlight beam right to that tower. So you need to hold all thousand beams simultaneously overlapping on a tower, hundreds of meters away.

So in the past that was done with big gearboxes and lots of mechanics and you try to make the gearboxes very accurate. You try and make them very stiff. You try to put them in the ground with a very precise spot and you try and survey the land very accurately, but it’s basically an engineering project to try and get those mirrors to move the right way. You don’t know if every mirror is going to be hitting its target because you’re tracking in a method called open loop, meaning you’re just moving every mirror to where you think it needs to be and you’re hoping that all the beams overlap.

We invented a new way of doing closed-loop tracking, meaning we’re not looking at where the mirrors are placed in the ground. We’re not looking at holding the mirror in the exact orientation. What we’re doing is using cameras to stare at the field, and in real time at 30 frames a second, observe the position of every mirror and make fine-tuned adjustments to it, to make sure all the beams are overlapping, precisely. So imagine a closed lock loop, like a lock system that is observing what’s happening and adjusting as opposed to guessing where the beam is going to go and trying to get it go to the right spot.

So the fundamental idea is using software to observe the position of the beam using high-resolution sensors. Basically using high-resolution cameras that are available today, but doing image processing, or doing image processing on a feed to move all the mirrors to the right spot. So now imagine all thousand beams from this entire large array of mirrors are all overlapping exactly. When they all overlap exactly, you get a huge amount of heat intensity at one spot and that’s how you can exceed any temperature you want.

Effectively we’re taking the sun’s rays, from 93 million miles away, as they strike the Earth and then taking a bunch of mirrors over a big land area and having them all redirect those beams to one spot and we’re achieving — and this is insane — one-fourth the temperature of the surface of the sun. We are pulling those beams back together and getting almost as hot as the sun itself. And why that matters is that the thermo-chemical reactions to make the materials we use on Earth need those intense temperatures to make those chemical reactions occur.

Like splitting water, for example. Water is the most abundant and cheapest material on earth. It’s a molecule, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom bound together very, very strongly. If you can break that bond, then you get hydrogen. Well, to break that bond takes intense temperature. We’re achieving enough temperature to break the bond of hydrogen, oxygen or water so we can make completely clean hydrogen using the sun. That’s a breakthrough. Never before possible.

A drone’s eye view of the concentrated solar installation in Lancaster, Calif. (Heliogen Photo)

Q: From a practical perspective, I’m looking at the pictures, this is not a small installation.

Bill Gross: It’s two acres.

Q: How does this get rolled out in a way that could have an impact in industry around the world?

Bill Gross: Well, it’s about, very roughly, a megawatt per acre. So if you want to replace a megawatt of fuel, you need one acre. If you want to replace two megawatts of fuel, you need two acres. If you want to replace a gigawatt of fuel, you need a thousand acres. So it just scales linearly. We go to high sunshine places, like the Central Valley in California, like in the deserts of Arizona or the deserts of the Sahara or Middle East or China or Chile. Ironically, some of the very, very good sunshine places, the land is very cheap, so per acre it costs almost nothing, and we can build a large array of these, and the energy collected is proportional to just the amount of mirrors, it’s just linear.

What has it been like working with Bill Gates as an investor? What kind of influence or input has he had?

Bill Gross: It’s incredible. He is such a visionary on this. First, he had the confidence in this, to take a chance on this. He gave a TED talk in 2010 about energy and how important is to have low-cost renewable energy. Basically, we need to get to zero-carbon, renewable energy on the planet and that was wildly inspirational to me. I was there at that TED conference in 2010 in Long Beach when he gave that talk, and I approached him after that. He said, why don’t you come up to Seattle and let’s brainstorm about this together. I had a brainstorming day with Bill and with Nathan (Myhrvold), with other people they brought in. 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. And he’s just been fantastic. Of course he’s going around the world telling everybody about this.

So he’s priming the world for how important this is. And I’m just honored to be able to fulfill even a tiny bit of his original vision on this, that we were able to deliver this. And he’s pretty excited, too, because this is the first time this has happened, that we can get to these temperatures, and he believes that we need to go to 100 percent renewable. So even if we get to 100 percent on electricity, that’s only a small part of the problem. So the fact that we’re able to make an impact on a different area where electricity doesn’t play, I think that’s why he’s so excited about this.

Does your company plan to oversee the construction and implementation of installations around the world or will you license the technology to others who will do it themselves?

Bill Gross: We will license it and we’ll partner with people to build it. We want to be more like the Intel inside, or like the Microsoft, like the DOS, like the operating system of this concentrated solar. But we will be the technology company developing it, refining it, always improving it, finding ways to lower the cost. But we’ll work with other partners to bring it to the customers. So, for example, we’re working with Parsons Engineering, a global engineering firm. They work on infrastructure, airports, things like that. So they have the capability to go to the big industrial customers and say, “Hey, we’re working with Heliogen, we know how to deploy this technology. You just tell us what you need. Heliogen will provide the technical support and teach us how to integrate everything.”

Many, many customers who care about their emissions had no alternative. They had no way to do anything with the sun, and now they do. We even want imitators. The demand for this should be $1 trillion. This is that big of an opportunity. We couldn’t even do all of it. So I even want there to be imitators.