“You can try to persuade people to care about climate change, but the only way you’re going to get huge change is if you save them money,” says Bill Gross. The founder of tech incubator Idealab and a lifelong solar energy pioneer, Gross had a major breakthrough last fall when he demonstrated that solar power generated through his Heliogen system could substitute for the fossil fuels used in industrial processes, which currently contribute about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases annually. His Bill Gates-backed company uses precisely controlled mirrors to turn sunlight into a superhot beam (like a giant magnifying glass) that can reach temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius—hot enough to manufacture cement, steel, and other industrial materials. Gross has since received more than 1,000 requests from companies, either to install Heliogen systems at their own facilities (and get free energy indefinitely, once the infrastructure is paid off) or to build a plant nearby and enter a long-term lease for energy (which Gross plans to sell for about 1 cent per kilowatt-hour, compared to fossil fuel’s 1.5 to 2 cents). Here’s how the system works.
Gross modeled Heliogen after the human body. “Brain-like” software uses optical sensors atop a tower to “see” and assess the entire field of mirrors, and adjust each in real time as the sun and even clouds move.
The concentrated sunlight can be applied directly to an industrial process or be used to heat a transfer fluid, such as steam or air, that can be moved elsewhere on-site via ducting.
Each of the mirrors adjusts individually to account for Earth’s rotation, passing clouds, and other changes that require repositioning throughout the day.