A new Bill Gates-backed company claims it has succeeded in harnessing solar energy to greater effect than ever before, producing enough heat from a field of mirrored panels to drive the production of concrete, steel and glass – processes that are largely based on fossil fuels.
This extra heat and efficiency has been made possible by artificial intelligence in keeping with our modern age: computer software that can precisely align the mirrors to absorb sunlight in the most intense way.
The company, called Heliogen, claims that its concentrated light beams are capable of creating a solar oven which reaches 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), which wasn’t achieved before in a commercial setting. This suggests that solar power could be a replacement for fossil fuels for a host of industrial jobs, not just electricity.
“The world has a limited window to slash greenhouse gas emissions drastically,” says Bill Gross, Heliogen’s CEO and founder. “We have made great strides in deploying clean energy in our electricity system. Indeed, electricity accounts for less than a quarter of global demand for energy.
“Heliogen represents a technological leap forward in addressing the other 75% of energy demand: the use of fossil fuels for industrial processes and transportation. With low-cost, ultra-high temperature process heat, we have an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to solving the climate crisis.”
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Through these focused solar power plants, energy production is not a new idea, but Heliogen has been able to get its systems to reach temperatures close to double what is currently possible, opening up a host of new opportunities.
In terms of the AI used, here we are mainly talking about computer vision: using high-resolution cameras to figure out each mirror’s location, backed up by complex algorithms that can optimize the angle at which they are positioned.
Heliogen is optimistic that it can use its devices to achieve temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 degrees Fahrenheit) further down the line. This is sufficient to create 100% fossil-free fuels, such as hydrogen or syngas, through processes of CO2 splitting and water splitting.
Hydrogen fuel has been spoken about for a long time as a cheap, environmentally friendly way to meet our transport needs, while hydrogen gas can be used for heating or transformed into biofuel. The problem with both is being able to produce them practically and affordably at scale.
The heat-generating processes of fossil fuel responsible for around 10 percent of global CO2 emissions, the program Heliogen has put together aims to make a big dent in the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere.
Nonetheless, all of this needs to be scaled up, which means that much more investment will be needed – as well as strategies for storing the generated energy on days when the Sun doesn’t shine (not every manufacturing business operates like Heliogen in the California desert).
With that in mind, in the short term, we won’t be able to ditch fossil fuels, but Heliogen’s AI engineering might just have taken us a big step closer.
“[ Heliogen’s ] ability to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to replace fossil fuel one day,” says ex-Microsoft boss Bill Gates, who is one of the early supporters of the solar startup.
“We have a lot of inventing to do if we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall.”