Automated Solar Arrays Could Help Incinerate Global Warming

Contact An Agent

Plenty of days, temperatures in California's Mojave Desert climb above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A measly figure. These 400 silvered glass panels, tucked into the western edge of that hot, hot desert, are there to generate heat 15 times that amount. And, ideally, to help cool the planet too.

Assembled by the Pasadena-based company Heliogen, each 16-square-foot freckle, a heliostat, reflects a kilowatt of sunlight to the top of a five-story tower, where it's absorbed by a silicon carbide receiver. As the little black plate glows white, it exceeds 1,800 degrees. That's hot enough to begin manufacturing cement and other industrial products—processes that typically rely on burning fossil fuels—and to potentially cut up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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.

Automated Solar Arrays Could Help Incinerate Global Warming

The WIRED Guide to Climate Change

The world is getting warmer, the weather is getting worse. Here's everything you need to know about what humans can do to stop wrecking the planet.

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.


More Great WIRED Stories

  • Hollywood bets on a future of quick clips and tiny screens
  • Mind control for the masses—no implant needed
  • Here's what the world will look like in 2030 ... right?
  • Internet deception is here to stay—what do we do now?
  • The war vet, the dating site, and the phone call from hell
  • 👁 Will AI as a field "hit the wall" soon? Plus, the latest news on artificial intelligence
  • 🏃🏽‍♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones