By the end of the next decade, the Middle East’s biggest export could be the sun, not oil, according to the developer of a new technology that aims to turn solar power into fuel.
Last month – and for the first time commercially – a new Bill Gates-backed clean energy company, Heliogen, concentrated solar energy to exceed 1,500°C.
At that temperature, Heliogen can split water molecules to make 100 per cent fossil-free fuels such as hydrogen or syngas.
And in addition to creating green fuel, the technology can also replace fossil fuels in the production of cement, steel and petrochemicals, dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m so excited that it’s actually possible,” Bill Gross, founder and chief executive of Heliogen, told The National.
“We are days away from 2020 and the decade of the 2020s is going to be a decade where we make or break it.”
Although concentrated solar power has been used before, it has never reached the temperature required to make cement or steel.
Cement alone accounts for 7 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
More than 1,600 companies have sent inquiries to Heliogen since it unveiled its technology at its facility in Lancaster, California, last month.
The task ahead is convincing industrial energy producers to replace their old methods with this new alternative. High on the list is the Middle East.
“[Saudi Arabia and the UAE] have the money, they have the land, they have the sun, they have the will, they talk such a great story of their vision for how they want to transform their economy,” Mr Gross said. “They will still be making fuel, it will just be fuel that didn’t come from digging. It will be fuel that came out of the air, from water and air.”
Mr Gross calculates that Saudi Arabia could fully replace its oil exports with green solar-generated hydrogen if it commits 4 per cent of its land – or 1,010 square kilometres – and invests $400 billion (Dh1.47 trillion) in developing a concentrated solar park.
“We’re picking the first customer now. It’s probably going to be a mining or minerals company in the Mojave Desert [in California] where I can show it at a big enough scale that Saudi Arabia can copy it,” Mr Gross said, adding that the first facility will be commercially operational by the end of next year.
“Accelerating clean energy innovation needs to be a priority,” Espen Mehlum, head of future of energy at the World Economic Forum, said. “Clean-tech development is too slow and many technologies are needed to meet the global climate targets.”
Mr Gross echoes that sentiment. “It makes me more optimistic because I feel there is a technological solution [to greenhouse gas emissions],” he said. “It makes me nervous that we won’t adopt it fast enough.”
The Heliogen team is made up of about 20 scientists and engineers mainly from Caltech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have been working for the last several years to combine mechanical engineering with massive strides in computer science and computing power.
Heliogen uses computer software to align a large array of mirrors extremely accurately to reflect sunlight on to a single target.
The amount of computing power needed to assess and capture the maximum amount of solar energy possible in real-time was not commercially feasible five years ago, Mr Gross said. But now it is.
Heliogen is not his first venture. The businessman is a lifelong entrepreneur and the founder of Idealab, the longest-running technology incubator in the US. His latest project, however, is very different.
“This is so big I can’t do it all myself,” he said. “I just want to show people there’s a way. I hope people steal this idea.”
Frank Wouters, global lead for low-carbon hydrogen at Worley, an Australian energy consultancy, and former deputy director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, said he believed Heliogen could be a success.
“The fact that Heliogen has solid financial backing means that they could potentially survive the so-called valley of death, which describes the period between having a technical prototype and a system that is commercially ready for the market,” he said.
“[The UAE] has the potential to produce green hydrogen from solar energy at competitive rates.
“The country has the land, the resources and the physical and intellectual infrastructure to be successful and a leader in the space.”