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This Bill Gates Backed Solar Tech Could Beat Price of Fossil Fuels, Cut Emissions

Renewable Energy
This Bill Gates Backed Solar Tech Could Beat Price of Fossil Fuels, Cut Emissions
"This singular scientific achievement was accomplished at Heliogen's commercial facility in Lancaster, California." Heliogen

A startup backed by Bill Gates unveiled a breakthrough solar technology Tuesday that could free heavy industry from fossil fuels.


Heliogen, as the company is called, made itself known to the public with the announcement that it had developed a way to use artificial intelligence and mirrors to reflect enough sunlight to reach temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius, CNN Business reported. That's the temperature needed to make cement, glass and steel.

"We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions," Heliogen founder and CEO Bill Gross told CNN Business. "And that's really the holy grail."

The sort of heavy industry processes that Heliogen's invention could heat account for around 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, David Roberts explained in Vox. And, until now, there have not been many promising low-carbon solutions.

"Bill and the team have truly now harnessed the sun," backer, company board member and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong told CNN Business. "The potential to humankind is enormous. ... The potential to business is unfathomable."

The new technology is a form of concentrating solar power (CSP), Roberts explained, when hundreds of mirrors are aligned in a field to direct sunlight at a steam turbine in a tower. The heat turns liquid to steam and powers the turbine, but the technology lost out to photovoltaic panels in the race for low-cost solar energy. But Heliogen's innovation could bring it back by relying on software to align the mirrors.

"What Gross and his team of scientists and engineers at Heliogen have developed, in a nutshell, is a way to use even more computing power to keep the mirrors even more precisely aligned, thus generating even more heat," Roberts wrote.

While traditional CSP generates heat of up to around 560 degrees Celsius, Heliogen's invention nearly doubles that. And the company thinks it can even reach 1,500 degrees Celsius.

That would be hot enough to split hydrogen atoms from water to create a fossil-fuel free gas, The Guardian explained.

Gross said the technology could therefore green both industry and transport, sectors which make up 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, even heat of a little more than 1,000 degrees is a big deal. Cement is the world's third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after oil and coal, and its production threatens the Paris agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"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 of the innovation he had backed, according to The Guardian. "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."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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