solar startup
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
March 24, 2020 ·  5 min read

Secretive Energy Startup Backed by Bill Gates Achieves Solar Breakthrough.

Finding clean energy sources is a hot topic nowadays. As pollution intensifies and the need for sustainable energy increases, many entrepreneurs and activists have worked to create more planet-friendly resources. Then Heliogen stepped onto the scene, a top-secret startup backed by Bill Gates. Heliogen is a clean energy company that announced itself in November 2019, claiming they have discovered a way to optimize artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to produce enough sunlight to generate over 1,000-degree heat (Celsius).

In summary, Heliogen has manufactured a solar oven that can reach temperatures that are about a quarter of what you would find on the surface of the sun.

In terms of sustainable energy, this means that concentrated solar energy can generate the heat required to produce steel, glass, cement, and other material. This process could help take the place of fossil fuels and large carbon emissions in these industries. [1]

We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions,” Bill Gross, Heliogen’s founder, and CEO. “And that’s really the holy grail.

Bill Gates isn’t the only billionaire backing Heliogen; Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong also supports this startup. He believes that the patented technology will be able to reduce greenhouse gases for these industries. Take cement, for example; according to the International Energy Agency, it accounts for seven percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Bill and the team have truly now harnessed the sun,” said Soon-Shiong, who also sits on the Heliogen board. “The potential to humankind is enormous. … The potential to business is unfathomable.

A New Kind of Solar Power

While traditional solar uses panels on rooftops to capture the sun’s energy, Heliogen is creating what they call concentrated solar power using mirrors to reflect the sun.

Concentrated solar power isn’t a new creation; it has been used previously to make electricity, and sometimes heat for manufacturers. It’s used in Oman to generate power for drilling for oil. However, this kind of concentrated solar power couldn’t support temperatures hot enough to produce steel and cement. 

You’ve ended up with technologies that can’t really deliver super-heated systems,” said Olav Junttila, partner at Greentech Capital Advisors — a clean energy investment bank that has aided concentrated solar companies previously.

Heliogen improved the concentrated solar power method since then using their mirror system, but there is another large component of their process.

Read: Microalgae System Turns Pollution Into Oxygen Equivalent To More Than 300 Trees

Artificial Intelligence Fighting Climate Change

The world is always in need of materials like cement and steel. For example, cement is needed to build anything from homes to schools to hospitals. However, these industries produce over one-fifth of global emissions without much growth into renewable energy sources — until now. This is why this startup has caught the attention of the co-founder of Microsoft (MSFT) and one of the world’s richest people, Bill Gates.

Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions,” said Gates. “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. 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.[2]

This is where the other component of this concentrated solar system comes in: artificial intelligence.

Instead of doing what other concentrated solar systems do — padding the technology with steel to make it stiffer — Heliogen optimizes computer vision software, automatic edge detection, and other kinds of precise technology to cause the field of mirrors to reflect sun rays to a more pinpointed area. 

If you take a thousand mirrors and have them align exactly to a single point, you can achieve extremely, extremely high temperatures,” Gross said. He added that Heliogen made its breakthrough on the very first day the plant was turned on.

Heliogen claims to be generating so much heat, this technology can one day be used to produce clean hydrogen at scale. Carbon-free hydrogen can be the future fuel for vehicles like airplanes and trucks.

If you can make hydrogen that’s green, that’s a gamechanger,Gross said. “Long term, we want to be the green hydrogen company.[3]

Until then, the company is focusing on its innovative solar energy production. 

Read: Scientists Create Liquid Fuel That Can Store The Sun’s Energy For Up to 18 Years

An Existential Issue

Solar energy has its obvious limitation; namely, it cannot be harnessed when the sun isn’t shining, yet industries need constant heat to manufacture their materials. Heliogen stated they would create storage systems to rely on during these time periods, quite literally “saving it for a rainy day.”

For now, Heliogen is demonstrating this technology for large-scale applications, such as using it in large industries like cement. After this application, Heliogen would most probably be ready to go public.

We’re in a race. We just want to scale as fast as possible,” Gross said.

All of this requires funding, and Soon-Shiong plans to invest more in the company. Heliogen hasn’t publicized how much money they have raised so far. 

This is an existential issue for your children, for my children and our grandchildren,” said Soon-Shiong.

The biggest issue Heliogen has yet to face is persuading companies to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and making the large financial investment involved. Heliogen has been talking to potential customers behind the scenes and will hopefully reveal the first customer soon.

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,” Gross said on CNN Business. [4]

Keep Reading: Affordable Solar Homes Produce as Much Energy as They Use

  1. Jillian Ambrose. Bill Gates backs startup using sunlight to create 1,000C-plus heat. The Guardian. The Guardian. November 19, 2019
  2. Jonathan Shieber. Heliogen’s new tech could unlock renewable energy for industrial manufacturing. Tech crunch. November 19, 2019
  3. Dan Edel. Heliogen Company Achieves Solar Breakthrough With Temperatures Over 1000°C. Intelligent Living. January 24, 2020
  4. Matt Egan. Secretive energy startup backed by Bill Gates achieves solar breakthrough. CNN Edition. November 19, 2019