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If You Can’t Do Nuclear, Try (Concentrating) Solar Power Instead

Bill Gates was going to save the planet with breakthrough nuclear technology, but his new concentrating solar power venture is breaking through first.

Some great news for concentrating solar power fans sailed in over the transom this morning. Mega wealthy person and famed US investor Bill Gates may be chasing the nuclear unicorn with his startup Terrapower, but meanwhile his other startup Heliogen — his secret one! — has just burst out of stealth mode with a new concentrating solar power breakthrough in its pocket.

concentrating solar power

Breakthrough concentrating solar power technology in Lancaster, California (Image via Heliogen)

A Concentrating Solar Power Breakthrough Grows In Lancaster, CA

While TerraPower has been pitching nukes, the Heliogen research team has been hammering away in deepest secrecy at its research facility in Lancaster, California, with the aim of developing a concentrating solar power system that can deliver temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Reading between the lines of Heliogen’s first ever press release, that puts the new solar system in direct competition with fossil fuels for high-heat industrial processes including cement and steel production.

If all goes according to plan, the new system will also breathe new, lower-carbon life into the petrochemical industry. That’s great news for ExxonMobil and other petroleum (and natural gas) stakeholders, though it’s not so great news for the “keep it in the ground” approach to averting climate global disaster.

The Concentrating Solar Power Solution

A typical concentrating solar power system works by collecting sunlight from arrays of specialized mirrors called heliostats (so Heliogen, get it?), and focusing the energy on a central point, where it heats molten salt or another medium, which then gets put to use. Boiling water for steam to run a generator is one such example.

If that sounds complicated, it is. Concentrating solar power has had its critics in past years, mainly due to its relatively high cost and complexity.

Nevertheless, the Department of Energy has been a big supporter of the technology here in the US, and it has been catching on elsewhere around the globe as the technology improves and costs come down.

The Energy Department has also been zeroing in on research that leads to new record-setting heat levels, just as Heliogen is claiming.

Here’s Heliogen on that topic:

“Previous commercial concentrating solar thermal systems have been designed to reach temperatures of up to only 565 degrees Celsius – useful for power generation, but insufficient for many industrial processes. Many of these processes require much higher temperatures, which have traditionally been reached through the burning of fossil fuels.”

That’s nothing. Heliogen is looking at temperatures up to 1,500 degrees. If you’re thinking what Heliogen is thinking, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Among other uses, the technology could be deployed to “split” hydrogen from water.

Hydrogen is a zero emission fuel but the primary source of hydrogen today is fossil natural gas, so the prospect of switching to water as a feedstock is a big deal.

In terms of staving off catastrophic climate change, devoting energy to water-splitting systems makes sense only if the energy comes from renewable resources like solar, so if you hear the sound of popping in the distance, that would be renewable hydrogen fans breaking out the bubbly in celebration.

How Does It Work?

So far so good, but the devil is in the details. Other teams are pursuing high heat solar power systems. What puts Heliogen ahead of the rest of the concentrating solar power pack?

The company isn’t saying much, except that it has something to do with an “advanced computer vision software to hyper-accurately align a large array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a single target.”

So far that sounds like a typical concentrating solar power system, with an extra punch provided by maneuvering the array of heliostats with extreme accuracy, enabling them to reflect more sunlight than other systems.

There is probably a lot more to the picture, but that’s all Heliogen is giving out for now.

Come to think of it, though, Heliogen has something in common with another company that has a concentrating solar power research site in Lancaster, California, called Edisun Microgrids. The thing in common is visionary innovator Bill Gross, who is listed as the CEO of Edisun, and who is also the CEO and co-founder of Heliogen.

Gross has several other solar startups under his belt, but let’s zero in on Edisun. Last spring the Energy Department included Edisun in a group of research teams aiming to bring down the cost of concentrating solar power.

Here’s the rundown from the Energy Department:

“Traditional cost reduction strategies have focused on developing larger heliostats with more mirror surface area on each unit, making the mirrors even more susceptible to wind. This project will pair smaller mirrors that can more precisely track the sun with an inexpensive novel gear train as the foundation of the heliostat.”

Stay tuned as CleanTechnica checks in with Heliogen for more details on its technology.

Whatever Happened To TerraPower?

Meanwhile, speaking of arrays, Heliogen has an impressive array of researchers, partners, and investors behind it, but Bill Gates sticks out in terms of name recognition so let’s hear what he has to say (via Heliogen’s press release):

“…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.”

So, where does that leave TerraPower? The nuclear industry still has potential for growth in some parts of the world. TerraPower initially had China in its sights, although that avenue has reportedly been closed, at least temporarily, due to the President* Trump’s trade policies.

Here in the US the prospects for finding news sites for nuclear power plants are zero to none within the foreseeable future, despite an assist from President* Trump’s so-named Affordable Clean Energy plan.

Nevertheless, there are still 98 nuclear power plants in the US. Some of them could potentially house new technology as their licenses come up for renewal.

As of last year the Energy Department was still cheerleading for TerraPower’s molten salt nuclear technology, and TerraPower continues to soldier on with R&D. The company has been working on a lab expansion and last September it also passed an important milestone in its work with the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory.

Since some concentrating solar systems also use molten salt as a medium, it’s also possible that some of TerraPower’s R&D could transfer to the concentrating solar power field, even if the nuclear thing doesn’t work out so well.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Image: Courtesy of Heliogen.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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