- A facility run by the energy company Heliogen uses mirrors to produce concentrated, high-heat solar power.
- Heliogen said on Tuesday that for the first time its facility created temperatures high enough to power industrial processes like cement or steel manufacturing.
- The technology could eventually replace fossil fuels in those processes.
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At the western tip of the Mojave Desert sits a mosaic of mirrors.
They’re part of a facility run by Heliogen, a solar-energy company developing a method to concentrate the power of sunlight.
The company’s array of mirrors directs light toward a single point on a tower. Once the light hits, liquid in the tower heats up, and that thermal energy fuels a heat engine.
While solar farms generate electricity for homes and businesses, this process is designed for manufacturing plants that produce cement, steel, or petrochemicals.
Producing those materials requires temperatures of at least 1,000 degrees Celsius, but other renewable-energy technologies are not capable of generating that kind of heat. Heliogen said on Tuesday that it had done that.
This is the first time a company has achieved such high temperatures using concentrated solar power – others have tried but achieved temperatures of only up to 565 degrees Celsius, Heliogen said.
Heliogen counts Bill Gates, now the world’s richest person, as one of its initial investors. In a statement, Gates called the company’s technology “a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”
Heliogen thinks its process will be more affordable than other renewable-energy technologies
Heliogen’s team, which includes scientists and engineers from Caltech and MIT, uses computer models to program the mirrors to reflect light at precise angles. That ensures all the solar beams reach the same point, resulting in extremely high temperatures.
In the near term, Heliogen hopes to sell its technology to industrial companies. It thinks the process could be cheaper than burning fossil fuels since it relies on a free resource: sunlight. Other renewable-energy technologies like wind turbines and hydropower (converting water into electricity) are cleaner than fossil fuels but tend to be more expensive.
“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,” Heliogen’s founder and CEO, Bill Gross, told CNN.
Gates thinks the technology could replace fossil fuels
Despite Heliogen’s initial success, Gates said, there’s still “a lot of inventing to do” before the manufacturing industry could achieve zero carbon emissions.
That’s because industrial processes are responsible for only about a fifth of global emissions. The rest comes from agriculture, transportation, buildings, electricity, and heat production, as well as other processes like oil extraction and refining.
But Heliogen also hopes to develop new types of clean fuel.
It said it was working to improve its technology so that it can reach a temperature of 1,500 degrees Celsius, at which point it may be able to split hydrogen molecules from water to create a hydrogen-based fuel that’s emission-free.
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