Heliogen: Using AI to Replace Fossil Fuels with Sunlight

Backed by Bill Gates, the greentech company has developed the first-ever technology capable of commercially replacing fossil fuels with heat from the sun.

21.11.2019 | by Reve Fisher
Photo by Heliogen
Photo by Heliogen

Heliogen, a clean energy company, has revealed its plans to “create the world’s first technology that can commercially replace fuels with carbon-free, ultra-high temperature heat from the sun.”

By using artificial intelligence along with the field of mirrors at its facility in Lancaster, California, the company can reflect enough sunlight to generate heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

At this temperature, Heliogen can replace fossil fuels in various industrial processes at scale, such as the production of cement, steel and petrochemicals. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions at an immense rate and possibly play a role in helping to solve the climate crisis.

Heliogen infographic

“The world has a limited window to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Bill Gross, CEO and founder of Heliogen and founder and chairman of Idealab, said in a statement. “We’ve made great strides in deploying clean energy in our electricity system. But electricity accounts for less than a quarter of global energy demand.

“Heliogen represents a technological leap forward in addressing the other 75 percent of energy demand: the use of fossil fuels for industrial processes and transportation.”

The company plans to eventually reach 1,500 degrees Celsius, which would enable CO2-splitting and water-splitting to make 100 percent fossil-free fuels like hydrogen or syngas.

Previous attempts to concentrate solar thermal systems have only manage to reach temperatures around 565 degrees Celsius. While this can be useful to generate power on a smaller scale, it is not enough for many industrial procedures. The burning of fossil fuels has been traditionally used to satisfy the need for such extreme temperatures.

Heliogen’s heat technology is a breakthrough to reduce the use of fossil fuels in industries that often cause the most damage to our ecosystem. As an example, cement production alone comprises seven percent of the world’s CO2 emissions.

The startup is backed by Bill Gates, and its team is full of scientists and engineers from MIT, CalTech and other top institutions.

“Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions,” said Bill 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… [Heliogen’s] capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”

Other key players behind the innovate solar thermal startup include investors Neotribe and Nant Capital and Heliogen’s strategic partner, Parsons Corporation.

“For the sake of our future generations we must address the existential danger of climate change with an extreme sense of urgency,” said Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, chairman and CEO of NantWorks and Heliogen board member. “By significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating a pure source of energy, Heliogen’s brilliant technology will help us achieve this mission and also meaningfully improve the world we leave our children.”

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