Bill Gates commitment to reinventing solar thermal energy
Steel production, cement plants or the petrochemical industry are hard bones to crack. The energy requirements of the heavy industry and the extremely high temperatures that certain of its processes usually use require millions and millions of tons of coal every year. They are simply too much for renewable energy. Or they were.
Now Heliogen, a Californian startup that has the support, financing, and advice of Bill Gates, has taken solar thermal energy to the next level: they have managed to reach more than 1,000 degrees with sunlight alone.
A huge magnifying glass controlled with a computer
It is said soon, but according to the data that have made public the Heliogen approach is very close to doubling the maximum amount of heat that, until now, we had been able to produce in this way. And they have done it in a relatively simple way: as its founder, Bill Gross, says with "a huge computer-controlled magnifying glass."
The point is that in traditional solar thermal systems the mirrors that were used to concentrate sunlight at one point had high accuracy, but much better. Heliogen uses high-resolution cameras to adjust the orientation of the mirrors to the millimeter and ensure that the reflected light fits the millimeter.
That is what has allowed pulverizing the previous record of this technology that was at 575 degrees so far. Beating the 950-degree line is very interesting because it allows us to start thinking about introducing this technology into the world of heavy industrial processes.
It is not that something can not be heated much by pulling electrical energy from the electricity grid. It is that, as Gross points out, "it is extremely inefficient to convert sunlight into electricity and then reuse it for heating." That is true in small quantities, but in large quantities, it is clear crystalline.
That is, heavy industry is so voracious that it needs extra help to function well. That is why these giant factories usually burn coal and other fossil fuels with which to achieve these temperatures. Which is a huge environmental problem?
On a global scale, cement production is responsible for 8% of total CO2 emissions and that is only one of the things that heavy industry does. The company believes that, with this system, it can help reduce up to 33% of those emissions. It seems optimistic, but whatever it is it is a step in the right direction.