Startup backed by billionaires creates superhot solar power

A mysterious startup reveals a groundbreaking solar energy achievement.

Startup backed by billionaires creates superhot solar power

Heliogen facility in Lancaser, CA.

Credit: Heliogen
  • Heliogen, a startup backed by Bill Gates and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, announces a solar energy breakthrough.
  • The company's array of mirrors generated heat of 1,000 degrees Celsius, nearly twice as much as before.
  • The startup aims to utilize the technology in industrial processes, significantly reducing gas emissions.


Heliogen, a solar-energy company backed by the the world's richest man, Bill Gates, claims to have made a renewable energy breakthrough. The company's array of mirrors generated a tremendous heat of 1,000 degrees Celsius, showing promise in replacing fossil fuels in major industrial processes.

The company is gearing its tech towards plants that manufacture cement, petrochemicals or steel. The replacement of fossil fuels in such industries could potentially lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that have been linked to climate change. Re-powering cement production alone with solar could wipe out up to 7% of carbon dioxide emissions around the world.

The way Heliogen's mirrors work is by concentrating light towards a point on a liquid-filled tower. This heats up the tower, creating thermal energy that can fuel a heat engine. Previous solar thermal systems would only go to 565 degrees, not producing enough power for many industrial operations that have achieved the required heat by burning up fossil fuels.

The company's system of mirrors is also noteworthy for its AI backend, supported by computer vision software that can align the large mirror array with precision to reflect sunlight onto a target. Of course, one wonders if this is going to have military applications.

Heliogen was founded by its CEO – the entrepreneur Bill Gross, who also founded Idealab. He called what Heliogen achieved "a technological leap forward" that can address about 75% of the world's energy demand that is currently not being served by clean energy.

"The world has a limited window to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Gross, adding "With low-cost, ultra-high temperature process heat, we have an opportunity to make meaningful contributions to solving the climate crisis."

Bill Gates, who invested into the company, said in a press release he was "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."

Based in Pasadena, California, the startup is staffed by scientists and engineers from top technical insinuations like Caltech and MIT. Among its other investors is the billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and the venture capital firm Neotribe.

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What's next for the startup? Having cracked 1,000 degrees, Heliogen aims to achieve temperates of up to 1,500 degrees Celsius. That amount of heat is necessary to make 100-percent fossil-free fuels like hydrogen or syngas. "If you can make hydrogen that's green, that's a gamechanger," explained Gross to CNN. "Long term, we want to be the green hydrogen company."

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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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