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A Bill Gates-backed startup wants to fix a huge carbon emissions problem

Heliogen's new technology could make the heavily polluting manufacturing industry cleaner.

heliogen
Heliogen

Problem: Cities around the world constantly need to erect more buildings, but the creation of materials like cement and steel is an enormous contributor to carbon emissions. The answer to this problem, a Bill Gates-backed startup hopes, lies in combining solar power with artificial intelligence.

Heliogen, a California-based startup unveiled on Monday, just announced a breakthrough in solar energy. The company uses mirrors and AI tech to concentrate sun waves, creating solar energy of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. Heliogen says this is almost double the 565 degrees Celsius reached by other commercial companies in the past.

In other words, Heliogen is able to use solar power for processes like creating steel, cement and petrochemicals that in the past were only doable with fossil fuels or natural gas. 

"Today, industrial processes like those used to make cement, steel, and other materials are responsible for more than a fifth of all emissions," Gates said in a statement. "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 [Heliogen CEO] Bill Gross's novel solar concentration technology."

Heliogen uses AI -- or, as it calls it, "advanced computer vision software" -- to calibrate a "large array" of mirrors to reflect sunlight at a single target. The company adds that it'll eventually be able to create solar energy levels of 1,500 degrees Celsius, allowing it to make completely clean hydrogen. 

It's unclear when or how much Gates, once again the richest man in the world, invested in the startup. Heliogen declined to comment, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.