One of the most difficult problems facing first-world countries as they search for more environmentally sustainable manufacturing methods is the issue of fossil fuel use in heavy industry. According to a Bill Gates-backed startup, Heliogen, it’s solved a major problem with industrial manufacturing and developed solar technology that can replace the conventional fossil fuels often used in these types of manufacturing.
Vox published a recent article on the problem of industrial heat, and I’d recommend giving it a look as an overview of the problem as it exists today. Heavy industry accounts for roughly 22 percent of global CO2 emissions. About 10 percent of global emissions come from the combustion required to manufacture goods like steel and cement. Cars and planes, in contrast, account for about 6 percent and 2 percent of global emission totals, respectively. Importantly, however — and Vox spends a fair bit of time on this issue — is that there is no known path forward for decarbonizing industrial heat.
Well. Not until now. Heliogen is claiming it can generate far more heat from solar operations than before. The startup claims it can use an array of mirrors and AI to focus sunlight using a concentrated solar plant. In and of itself, that’s nothing new — concentrating solar plants like Ivanpah have been operating for several years. Early problems with the plant also functioning as a sort of bird death ray have been ameliorated by adjustments to mirror positioning.
What’s special about Heliogen’s technology isn’t the broad strokes of the method; it’s the output temperature. Ivanpah runs at a temperature of 500C. Heliogen has developed a solar concentration technology capable of reaching 1,000C. And 1,000C is enough energy to power a number of industrial processes, including concrete production. The company’s long-term roadmap calls for commercializing 1,500C solar, which would allow for hydrogen and syngas production.
“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, told CNN Business. “And that’s really the holy grail.”
As a startup, Heliogen obviously isn’t handing out price tags for its systems just yet, but the ability to build industrial processing centers that rely on solar power for heat generation could be critical to meeting the demand for building materials like concrete and steel. Delivering these improvements at costs below that of traditional fossil fuels makes the transition to a greener power source an easy one. The technology could find a particular home in places like China, where high levels of air pollution caused by burning coal have been particularly harmful and the country has prioritized finding new sources of power from solar, wind, and natural gas rather than continuing to rely on coal.
Heliogen claims to have used AI to discover exactly how to align its mirrors for maximum temperatures and has stated it generates so much excess heat, it might be able to harness the same process to create hydrogen at scale. While hydrogen can theoretically be produced via electrolysis (and electrolysis can be powered by renewable energy), the current hydrogen economy runs on hydrogen produced by steam reforming of natural gas and doesn’t count as “green” in any context.
As for how to keep plants running when the sun isn’t shining, Heliogen has stated it will rely on storage systems of an unspecified type. The company has said it will announce its first customers soon, and that its use of AI and software constitutes a core business advantage that makes the underlying technology affordable (along with the decreased reliance on fossil fuels and their associated costs).
A discovery like this could be potentially huge if the technology scales. That Bill Gates has emerged as a backer is another sign Heliogen’s technology may be the real deal. Given that cement production alone accounts for 7 percent of global CO2 emissions, reducing industrial energy usage by building concentrated solar would make a meaningful dent in worldwide GHG emissions.
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