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How innovator Bill Gross’s solar breakthrough could decarbonize heavy industry

The renowned entrepreneur and investor discusses the evolution of Heliogen and his new concept for capturing carbon.

Serial entrepreneur Bill Gross believes there are three key ingredients to launching a successful company: timing; iteration; and using Moore’s Law.

When it comes to launching a company that will help in the fight against climate change, "the timing is perfect," he said, speaking in January at a sustainability summit in Abu Dhabi. Gross described 2020 as a necessary turning point if civilization is to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

But a good idea that lands at the right time still needs product/market fit, which is where iteration comes in. "It’s not a little bit about that, it’s all about that," Gross said. Adapting to market needs as quickly as possible is how entrepreneurs win.

Finally, there’s Moore’s Law. A simplified version of the law states that the overall processing power for computers will double every two years while experiencing a dramatic decrease in relative cost. Nothing has gone down in cost as much or as fast as the cost of computing power, Gross asserted.

I would like any industrial customer that uses a fossil fuel to make heat for their process to know that there's now a way they can replace that fossil fuel with solar-generated heat.
"Finding a way to embed more computation in your product — because that's only going to get cheaper, approaching free — gives you a competitive advantage," he said in an interview with GreenBiz on the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

Gross hopes his own advice will pay off as he looks to scale his latest venture, Heliogen, and develop a new carbon capture technology he discussed publicly in this interview for the first time.

A renewable energy solution for industrial customers

Heliogen emerged from stealth mode last fall with the headline-grabbing news that its concentrated solar power technology could generate heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius — surpassing existing technology — by leveraging artificial intelligence.

The system uses large mirrors that reflect sunlight at a single point on a tower, where temperatures soar to roughly a quarter of levels found on the surface of the sun. Gross and his team were able to generate this extreme heat at their demonstration site in Lancaster, California, by using software to keep the mirrors precisely aligned with the tower target. Not only does this approach produce higher temperatures, it also uses computing power to cut down on expensive materials and labor, Gross said.

This breakthrough means that solar energy could play a critical role in decarbonizing heavy industries that require intense heat, such as steel and cement manufacturing.

Heavy industry represents around 22 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Nearly half of those emissions come from combusting fossil fuels to make high-temperature heat. This sector is notoriously difficult to decarbonize due to limited technology alternatives and cost barriers. Heliogen bills itself as developing the world's first technology capable of replacing fuels with sunlight.

"I would like any industrial customer that uses a fossil fuel to make heat for their process to know that there's now a way they can replace that fossil fuel with solar-generated heat — at any temperature," he said. "And that it can be both cheaper and renewable."

Heliogen is still looking to lock in its first official commercial customer but anticipates that its first project will be in California, close to company headquarters in Pasadena. Gross, meanwhile, is already working on new ways to put this technology to work.

Heliogen Lancaster, California facility

A new opportunity in desalination

One promising new application Gross sees for Heliogen’s technology is to make hydrogen. With the ability to reach 1,000 degrees with concentrated sunlight, the system could be used to split water molecules and make hydrogen fuel that’s 100 percent clean. That low-carbon fuel could then be used for mobility and industrial processing, as well as generating electricity and heat.

Becoming a reliable source of renewable hydrogen is still a ways off for the company, but that hasn’t stopped Gross from exploring additional applications. The Idealab founder traveled to Abu Dhabi last month to pitch customers in the sunny Middle East and discovered enormous interest in using Heliogen’s technology for desalination. 

"The initial interest was almost all in making cement, steel and glass. But now, and especially after coming here to this conference, there’s very, very big interest in desalination," he said. "I actually think desalination might end up being the biggest use of this technology, because we need clean water and water [access] is only going to become more and more of a problem over time." 

Desalination requires huge amounts of electricity. By using solar-generated heat as part of the process, desalination plants could see a major boost in efficiency. In places such as the United Arab Emirates, where the vast majority of fresh water is made from desalination and most electricity comes from fossil fuels, relying on heat from Heliogen could have significant environmental benefits.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Gross’s second golden rule for launching a successful company is to iterate, and iterate again, to find the best product/market fit. He’s putting that approach into action.

Heliogen is already on its second reincarnation, having started out in 2013 as a venture called Edisun Microgrids that used concentrated solar power to generate clean electricity and store it in a bed of rocks. Flash forward to 2019, Gross had renamed the company Heliogen and pivoted from generating electricity to generating heat for industrial processes. The company also moved on from rocks to other materials that can handle extremely high temperatures. 

It’s rare to create something genuinely new in the cleantech space. Gross credits iteration, along with timing and taking advantage of Moore’s Law, as critical to Heliogen’s advancement to date. 

I actually think desalination might end up being the biggest use of this technology, because we need clean water and water [access] is only going to become more and more of a problem over time.
"As a startup, you don't have the huge marketing budget of a big corporation," he said. "You need pull. You need customers saying, ‘I need this now.’"

Financial backing from Bill Gates probably also helped. Venture capital firm Neotribe and billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong’s Nant Capital are also early supporters.

Heliogen’s souped-up solar technology soon could find its way into a new carbon capture concept Gross is cooking up. His plan is to use the cheap heat generated by the Heliogen system and combine it with the kinetic and gravity-based energy storage technology he previously developed at the company Energy Vault to power filters that can suck in huge amounts of ambient air and take the carbon dioxide out. The CO2 would then either be buried underground or converted into a renewable cycle fuel.

"There will be some places where it's very hard, like aviation, like certain remote applications, maybe space exploration, that would be very, very hard to electrify or use concentrated solar to replace," Gross said. "For those last things, when we get down to that final list, it will be great to have a cost-effective way to take the CO2 back out of the atmosphere that we put in." 

Gross said he’s currently "working on some methods" for this new carbon capture concept under a separate company housed at Idealab. But he noted that direct air capture is difficult to do and that his budding new idea is "a longer-term prospect."

The timing for this new company isn’t quite right just yet.

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