Heliogen CEO Bill Gross has dreamed of harnessing the sun since the 1973 energy crisis, when he sold DIY solar panels. Those sales helped put him through college. When oil prices plummeted, he took a detour to build software—you can thank him for inventing pay-per-click ads—before he founded Heliogen in 2013, with funding from Bill Gates. Last fall, the company fired up this first array. “It was a bit like watching a lunar landing,” Gross says.
Uber's self-driving cars could be crucial to the company reversing operating losses that topped $3 billion last year. If it works, that self-driving technology might finally lead the ride-hailing company to the kind of profitability its investors—who have sunk more than $22 billion into Uber already—would like to see.
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Similar arrays have been used to make electricity and tasty SunChips, and even drill for oil. But those peak around 1,000 degrees, because each heliostat has to be individually calibrated and can fall out of alignment over time. With Heliogen, cameras atop the tower scan the sky, and image analysis software computes the optimal position for each mirror, which can rotate in increments smaller than 1/160 of a degree. Gross says such efficiency can deliver heat 20 percent more cheaply than fossil fuels can.
As proof of concept, Heliogen has mounted a kiln atop the tower to directly heat limestone, a key step in making cement. This year the company plans to link with commercial partners that have the ample shadowless land required. Gross is also building a receiver that can handle temperatures above 2,700 degrees. That kind of hellfire can create synthetic hydrogen, which could replace oil-based fuels. “Civilization depends on cement and steel—our roads, travel, everything,” Gross says. “We've found a way to clean it up.”
Laura Mallonee (@LauraMallonee) writes about photography for WIRED.This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now .
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