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Secretive Bill Gates-backed solar startup announces major breakthrough

Heliogen is a startup that wants to “replace fuels with sunlight.” And the Bill Gates-backed solar startup, which has flown under the radar until today, has made a major green-energy breakthrough for heavy industry. Heliogen “has created the world’s first technology that can commercially replace fuels with carbon-free, ultra-high temperature heat from the sun.”

Heavy industry such as steel, cement, and petrochemicals are major polluters because they need extremely high heat to manufacture their products. According to the EPA, heavy industry creates more than one-fifth of global emissions.

Heliogen, which was created at the technology incubator Idealab, has now figured out how to concentrate so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius. That way, heavy industry can replace fossil fuels with solar, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s how the Lancaster, California-based company does it:

Heliogen is able to achieve these breakthrough temperatures as a result of its technology that uniquely uses advanced computer vision software to hyper-accurately align a large array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a single target.

Why it’s groundbreaking

Bill Gross, the CEO and founder of Heliogen (and the founder and chairman of Idealab) said:

We’ve made great strides in deploying clean energy in our electricity system. But electricity accounts for less than a quarter of global energy demand. 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.

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said of Heliogen’s breakthrough:

Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions. These materials are everywhere in our lives, but we don’t have any proven breakthroughs that will give us affordable, zero-carbon versions of them. If we’re going to get to zero-carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do. I’m 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.

Los Angeles-based billionaire investor and entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is also a backer of Heliogen. Soon-Shiong intends to invest even more money in the company.

Heliogen will bank its energy with storage systems for cloudy days so that industrial production isn’t interrupted. The company wants to grow quickly and then go public.

Its biggest selling point to potential industrial customers, if saving the world from the climate crisis isn’t enough? Sunlight is free.

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.