The tech that could eradicate fossil fuels forever | Hard Reset Podcast #3
- Hi, Mom, and welcome to the Freethink... No, I'm just kidding. - I actually kind of like that. - Hello, all seven of you. - This is "Hard Reset," a series about rebuilding our world from scratch.
- Hey, everyone, welcome to the "Hard Reset" podcast. This is a podcast where we get to talk about the show "Hard Reset" that we put out on Freethink, and we get to dive in a little bit more deeply and talk about things we couldn't fit in the show, or respond to the audience comments. I'm here with Taylor Hamilton, the co-creator.
- Hello. Hello. - Rob Chapman-Smith, the editor-in-chief at Freethink. - Hey.
- And Toby Muresianu, who is the community manager. - How's it going? - So make sure you like and subscribe. We wanna make sure that we're connecting with you, and make sure that we get every episode as it comes out, and that also just helps us make lots of money. - Very important. - Today, we're gonna talk about the third episode of "Hard Reset", which was on Heliogen, and it was a 'hard reset' for industrial power essentially.
So if you haven't watched the episode, please do- it's a really fun episode. It has some of our favorite jokes in it, and it also has one of our favorite technologies in it. First thing I would love to talk about with this one is, is this really a 'hard reset?' It's using the sun for power, is sort of something we've been doing for centuries, really. And what makes this a 'hard reset' in your mind, or not a 'hard reset?' So I'll start with you, Taylor.
- Okay, so I have to say that I'm very biased because I love this technology- like when I talk about actually feeling genuine hope for the future, it was like sitting and listening to these people talk about how all of this is gonna work. And where I think it is- I mean, they freely say in this like, "This is concentrated solar power. There's a lot of concentrated solar power plants that have been out there for years and years: Africa, Middle East, any number of places." And so what they've done is just, you know, a few tweaks to really evolve that technology. I think the 'hard reset' here is when this really does take over fossil fuels, right? The big thing about renewables is when that balance really shifts over.
And the reason that I get really excited about this is that there are a lot of things like desalination plants and vertical farms and so many things that rely on having a lot of power. And if you are just polluting the Earth by putting in more fossil fuels, but you're not doing it renewably, then it doesn't make sense for a lot of those other technologies to come about. This is really helpful to me because I think that this could really unlock a lot of things, and I think it's like endless number of things that it could really unlock if you can have like endless clean energy. I think there was a Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman movie about like, just like the power of like, renewable. - "Chain Reaction" is the movie you're thinking. - Yeah, that's what this feels like.
- 'When does it end, Lyman?' - 'Never!' - Fun fact, "Chain Reaction" was filmed at Argonne National Labs at the particle accelerator where we filmed for another episode of "Hard Reset." - That is so nerdy. - Yeah, super nerdy. Yeah, I agree with all that and I think that it's definitely one of those where I walked away like feeling really inspired.
This is a technology that can scale and it's built to scale, for sure. - Yeah, I mean that's the whole thing here, is that Bill Gross, who we actually met and worked with years ago when we worked in consulting, you know, he's a serial entrepreneur, right? So he's built 150+ companies; like this is what he does. And he actually has this really great TED Talk where he talks about, "Hey, I've started all these companies.
I went back and analyzed why companies succeed or fail, and here's what I've learned." And that timing is really the important thing here. - Yeah.
- And so, you know, years and years, decades and decades of people talking about, you know, "renewables and wind and blah blah and all the, the problems with this," and a lot of people really trying, this seems like, because of really the AI aspect of things and the transport of energy, the reason why this can actually change. - Yeah. - Similarly, I thought it was a super compelling video; it was like a really fascinating technology and stuff. I'm in the same ballpark where it's like, I don't know what renewable energy is going to be the one or the two or the three that ends up reducing our dependence on fossil fuels- and one thing I think about is like, you know, take social media 15 years ago, right? We were all around and we had 10,000 people starting up various little social networks or social technologies. Most of those are gone, but we still use social networks all the time.
And the few TikToks, the, you know, Snapchats, whatever, you couldn't have called it in advance that those are so much better than the other ones, but they're the ones that lasted and then took over everything. I feel like we're in a similar place with renewable energy now where I don't know which particular startup, which particular technology is going to be the one that ends our dependence on fossil fuels. But it's cool to see a lot of really smart people working on a lot of really cool ideas in this space. And if it's not this one, I hope it is, but if it's not this one, I hope it's another one we get to do a video about. - Yeah, I mean, I think it's worth pointing out some of the things that are special about what Heliogen, specifically, is doing.
I mean, let's just back up: We had, I think, two or three calls with them where they were telling us how everything worked and I was like sitting there, I was like, "I don't understand. I still feel stupid. I don't understand." And so I think part of what we are trying to endeavor to do in this video is like they're doing so many different things and the system is so broad, and really try to explain as clearly as possible- - Yeah. - how all of it works, and works together.
- I think if you are familiar with the image of a concentrated solar plant, you see a bunch of mirrors all pointing a thing and you're like, "That's the exact same as that." But they are so much different when you get close and figure out these things. And that is really one of the things I definitely wanna talk about in this. - There's two big things that immediately come to mind in terms of what they're doing that's really unique and interesting here: One is the size and mirrors. So these mirrors are about, you know, this big right? They're about six feet or so. And the advantage of those is that you can make them in any number of factories all over the world.
Whereas traditionally, a lot of the industrial solar panels are huge, right? Like they're the size of like a tennis court, right? And so you can only make those in a few places around the world and you have to ship them- that's super inefficient. The second thing here is really they've been focusing on software, not hardware, right? And so instead of trying to make, you know, the perfect, you know, piece of hardware that's mounted in exactly the right position that's gonna get there, they're like, "Ah, it'll be kind of okay, and we'll fix this with all of the software." And so, I mean, these things are moving just ever so slightly throughout the day, and that just brings such a high level of efficiency throughout the day when this thing's actually running, but also in the setup, so that you can propagate these heliostats as quickly as possible. - Yeah, I think if you have a mechanically calibrated mirror array, you have to go through and painstakingly program, "On this day, you need to move this speed from there to there, and you have to test that, and dial it in for each mirror." And then guess what? If a grain of sand or, you know, like a tortoise winds up coming in and like napping on it, it's all fucked up.
You have to start over and recalibrate it. That is a painstaking work, and to be able to automate that with four cameras and an AI system that can kind of analyze that, the movement of every mirror, is incredibly time-saving, and just makes this so much easier to set up, so much easier to maintain. - Yeah. I mean let's think about the worker
side of this, right? They're putting these things in deserts, right? - Desserts. - Desserts, deserts. - Deserts. - They're putting these things in deserts and so it's like 110, 120, 130 degrees like where they're- you don't want to be out there for a very long period of time, right? And so, the setup here that they're really trying to go for is to make this as automated as possible, not only in terms of the operation, but in terms of being able to put these all out here. - One of my favorite things about this episode is the software component because it just shows the power of software to just like augment things that we already know how to build, right? Like there is some impressive machining and engineering involved in this from a physical standpoint; like even just being able to have those micro-movements that the mirrors need to do that you're automating, like that's like impressive amount of machinery needed to do that, especially at the scale that they want it to do.
But the software is the key thing here. And it's just like, "Oh, well if we can apply software to so many other types of things, what other types of exponentially more efficient or more productive things can we make out of stuff?" And Heliogen is just a great example of like, when software is going to eat the world, what that actually can look like. - Yeah. I mean when they were talking about,
'cause we were like, "Okay, so how's it work?" It's like, "Well we figured out the color blue." And I was like, "I'm sorry, let's go back." He's like, "Okay, well you know how, like, you see when you look at the sun..."
I'm like, "I'm not that dumb, I don't look at the sun." But you know, "Next to the sun you have, you know, it's like a light shade of blue and then if you go really far away, you look the other way, it's a really dark shade of blue. We're actually tracking all those very, very small difference in the shades of the blue- and that's actually how we're figuring out which way the mirror is pointed." I was like, "That's crazy." - It's also funny 'cause like just blue or indigo is such a weird color when it comes to like us making it, and so the fact that like the key for them to figure this out is the color blue is just like, "Oh, blue is just something that humans need to just like deal with and like, this one's gonna potentially figure out how we get away from fossil fuels." Like, that's kind of fun. Yeah.
- There is some beautiful simplicity there. And also with like the rock battery where it's just like we couldn't figure out how to store renewable energy and then we used like, rocks. - Yeah, just rocks. - Rocks. Yeah.
- 'You have a rock collection?' - 'It's a mineral collection!' - Just normal-ass rocks. - Yeah. - I also like, yeah, the, the software thing is fascinating because it's like you have all these very expensive, very complicated technologies, and the more that you can put in software, where it's essentially free to update and everything like that, versus hardware that you need to painstakingly repair, you know, you open the door to things like, "Oh we have a new algorithm and now all of our existing solar plants are 5% better," you know? And things like that, so it's really exciting. - Yeah, I mean I think when we as like consumers are like hearing these things talked about, it's like, "Oh, the battery is this, a bigger battery blah blah." And you kind of forget that at the end of the day, it's like precious materials that are inside of those things, right? So with a lot of battery technology, I mean, it's about cobalt right now. And now because China has so dominated the cobalt markets in Africa, that now, I think Tesla's actually leading the charge on trying to figure out something other than cobalt that can be used in all these batteries. And so this idea of like, "Okay, well, let's figure out which rocks and you know, does it need to be a special rock or can it just be any rock? And like how does that store, right?" Like this is what we're really talking about.
Like how it's so primitive: All this technology is so primitive, that they're doing, Sun, rock, you know, it's so interesting, and yet, it's the thing that may save our species. - Well, it's also funny 'cause like rocks are like probably one of the most useless things. - Oh, I strongly disagree. - You think? - I like rocks.
- You like rocks? - I'm a fan of rocks. - But do you use them? - Are you kidding? Look around you. - Yeah. Look how many things around you are made out of rock. The cement... - Cement's not made out of rock though.
- His whole house is built out of marble. - It's rock-like. - It's rock-like, but there's also rock put into the cement to fill it in. - Fair. There's different things like that. We use minerals all the time.
- All this gold. We use minerals. - I wouldn't classify gold as a rock necessarily, but- - No, I mean, it is, to your point, I'm being a little bit devil's advocate, being little bit facetious, but yeah, it is such a boring thing. "Well, it's rocks.
Literally just throw it away, it's just a rock." - I've realized that the whole thing with this show is that we just try to focus on and find the most boring thing that's out there, and try to make it as interesting as possible. I mean, that really is the conceit of the show because it is the boring stuff that will actually save us. Right? - Yeah, well the other thing, like to your point about rare, precious metals, the other company like that is Turntide, that we've done some sponsored work for where their whole point is like, "Can we just make electromagnets as good as rare Earth magnets in terms of motors by using software to make them more efficient?" Again, software eating the world.
And it says, "Well, you know, you don't need the rare Earth magnets to have an electric motor anymore." So you're not as reliant on these supply chains that are sort of, you know, a little iffy at times. And I think being able to use intelligence and software to make the rocks around us into a very useful commodity is incredible. And to me, it is very inspiring and hopeful and it's, but yeah, we drew a line underneath it basically with the voiceover of like, "How could you power the world with mirrors and rocks?" Maybe.
- Yeah. - Yeah. - And I'll just say Rob's being salty, but salt, also a rock. - Also a rock.
- Very good. - I don't know if that was worth it. - I think it's fair to say this is a scalable technology, and I think that, to my mind, whether or not it's a 'hard reset,' is it's a clear "yes" in that we could not just change the way that we generate power, but the different ways in which we generate power. And I think it's one of those things that I think could have is built for the scale, it's built to make change, and is doing it right now. One of the other things that I would love to hear about is downsides on this- and the biggest downside that has come up is a lot of people talking about the impact on wildlife.
And it is undeniable that some of these things can have impacts, you know, all the concentrated energy that can literally cook birds as they fly through, I understand, but it seems like a pretty small impact given the incredible upsides. But I'm curious if there's other downsides that have occurred to y'all. - Yeah, I mean I think about, well, this is conceivably replacing fossil fuels and how many birds do fossil fuels ostensibly kill, right? So you're balancing it one way or another. And then- - let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
- Yeah, I don't know if we really asked them how many birds this kills or if it does kill birds. - We were out there all day, we didn't see a single bird explode. - Definitely didn't see that. - And I was looking.
- They were all killed last week. - Also, to be really clear, we flew that drone directly- - Oh yeah. - directly into the ray, like the central ray, right? - I don't know if they were at their highest temperature when we did that, but we definitely flew through. - And I don't know the skin of a bird versus skin of a a drone. I don't know how those... - One is definitely more delicious.
- I am not a scientist. - We do get a lot of feedback on that, you know, like, "What about the birds? What about the birds?" When it's this, when it's wind turbines, when it's, you know, other technologies and yeah, I think it's one of those things that you really just have to keep in perspective that the status quo is so ruinous, that, you know, you can't just let the possibility of a negative outcome, you know, cause you to like, you know, write-off these technologies that could have such a huge upside. - Well it's also a benefit that birds aren't real, so I don't know what we're actually talking about here in terms of the problem. - Can't forget that. - Do all the people that comment about the birds have bird feeders? Like, are they contributing in that way? Like, I'm just wondering about their... - I'm looking at the camera.
- I have two bird feeders, like I'm here for the birds, you know? I'm trying to save our skies. - And I will say, also, that the company, we asked them this directly, and they did have measures that they take to not kill birds. Like it's not just something that they're accepting even if, you know, as something that's outweighed by the good, but something that they're- - I have another question: If you're commenting about the birds, do you eat chicken? - Only lab-grown.
- I think of all the things that kill birds and it's like, "Well, glass doors." Windows and tall buildings. Cats. - I love birds. I wanna be really clear.
I'm pro-bird. - I'm indifferent to birds. - Wow. But you're a cat person. - I understand that... I am a cat person. - I mean, I love birds because they're kind of like my pets because I have bird feeders, but I don't have to take care of them. - I think it's worth noting that while we were setting up for the shoot today, there was a hummingbird that got stuck in the rafters, and we all came together to free it from spiderwebs around its thing, and like get it free and healthy.
So we clearly are pro-bird. We're very pro-bird. - Freethink: For the birds. - Freethink: We like birds.
We're not against birds. - I do think one of the potential downsides, and this isn't just like exclusive to Heliogen, I think this talks about solar in general when we talk about putting them in deserts, is that deserts are ecosystems too- and so we tend to not think about the life, and like the ecology of deserts as being like a life-bearing ecosystem, but they totally are. And so, when we're building these big, massive infrastructure things in desert ecosystems, we should think about the impacts of those physical structures there. And I don't know how you protect those things; it's not something that I have a lot of knowledge set in, but there are ecologists who are like focused on this intently because deserts are a place where we're focusing a lot of energy of putting potential things like the heliostats.
- I think it's just also this question of like weighing it against the status quo and weighing against the alternatives: You know, I mean people will be like, "Oh, I don't like the way," like we got comments like, "I don't like it, it's ugly." - Right. "I don't like how solar plants look." Like, "Look, have you ever seen an oil plant?" You know, it's not great, you know? But every time we- - I mean, watch "Deepwater Horizon," remember when all that oil went everywhere? - Yeah. Well I mean it's like there's no solutions, there's only trade-offs, right? Especially when it comes to like getting rid of fossil fuels. - I think this one might actually be closer on the spectrum to solution than trade-off though.
- That's fair. That's fair. - Yeah, because even the jobs aspect of of it, I mean there's so many jobs I think still get created by a concentrated solar power, but also just the transport of this, I think is also really interesting. So when you, you know, are able to turn this into hydrogen and then ship it all over the world to the places that don't have deserts, or desserts, you know, those are all jobs as well. What I thought was really interesting was, in terms of Bill's vision of this, and just- he really is thinking about it on a global scale, and where are you actually going to put these, right- and so he's like very fixated on like, "I'm gonna do one, a bunch of them in Australia, here, and you know," and he's picking those places strategically really with the idea of where are the deserts? But then also, how close are they to the different population centers? - Right. - And one of the things that we have as just a conceit with a bunch of the "Hard Reset" episodes is this global map of the world, and showing where people move things and all that stuff. And so, what we're really focused on is like: Where are the population centers? Who is using electricity? And really trying to make sure that we can figure out the quickest way from point A to point B in terms of where these solar refineries are, and where are those population centers, yeah.
- The other thing that I think is important from a scale side, an impact thing of this that we talk about it in the show, but I don't think people really understand it: just how much industrial processes impact our use of carbon and fossil fuels. And this is one of the very few technologies that can have an impact there because most, you know, electricity is very hard to use in a lot of these processes. There are ways to melt steel with electricity and arcs and things like that- it's just a little bit complicated. Usually what they do is burn coal to generate the heat to smelt steel and refine metals. Usually they're using fossil fuels to create clinker for cement.
And a lot of these, all these processes, these industrial processes for intense heat add up to 20%, roughly, of our carbon footprint, which is massive. It's huge. And this is one of the only solar technologies that can really impact that. Like, it's sort of amazing, and it doesn't do it the way you think where they generate electricity and use that to create a thing.
They're actually taking the heat directly from that heliostat array and pumping it through a fluid medium, which is actually air- so it's very clean- and it's not, they're not using anything crazy like molten salt, that you have to worry about like spilling out and melting and murdering people. It's just air, it's just hot air- using thousand-degree air to heat steel and refine it, to heat clinker and refine it. And that, reducing the carbon impact of these industrial processes, is just massive.
I mean, that to me, is one of the things about this that I wish we had been able to emphasize more and we, we do talk about it, but you just can't overstate how important that is. - We actually got a lot of questions about that, which is specifically: You heat up the rocks really high, and is that then used to regenerate electricity, or is that used directly as heat or-? - So that's a slightly separate thing: So for industrial processes, the idea here is that they have an insulated tube from the top of that tower that comes down, and it's insulated so you can pump thousand-degree air in it through it and you could then directly use that in an industrial process. - Okay. You use that in a steel plant or something. - You can put that into a steel plant and use it to melt steel or aluminum or whatever. And you can use that to refine metals, or you can hook that directly into those insulated canisters of rocks and use that to store energy in the form of heat. That heat can be used directly if you need, you know, something where you want to just heat water or something like that, but you can also turn it into electricity with something like either a sterling engine, where essentially, it's using heat to drive a piston to run a turbine.
You can pour water through it to run a steam turbine or you can use, there's some solid-state solutions that they use similarly. Like for example, in the spacecraft, they use a lot of these as a way of generating power from a heat differential from hot to cold. So there's lots of ways where you can take that heat and turn it into electricity. And it's a very non-toxic way of storing electricity. Like batteries or you know, there's any number of things that go in there that are hard to find, that are toxic, and those batteries degrade over time.
Rocks keep getting hot over and over- as far as we can tell. - Well that's really interesting because, I mean, on the one hand my first question is like: What's the efficiency of getting that out of a battery versus a traditional battery? But at the same time, the cost differential in terms of like you could put in a million tons of rocks for a lot cheaper than a million tons of batteries, so I'm curious how the economics of that work out. - Yeah, and I mean it's the ever everlasting problem of every time we turn one kind of energy into another kind of energy, there's a cost. Because if you take, you know, movement and kinetic energy and turn it into electricity, then you're losing a little bit and you know, and every time you turn electricity into photons for lights, etc..
And this is definitely an example of that, where you're taking, you know, heat and turning it into electricity, but you are sort of removing one step, where the heat from that solar array, you put it into the rocks, it stays heat, that's pretty efficient. Whereas if you had to turn it into electricity right away, store that as chemical energy in a battery and then return that to electricity through a chemical process- so there's maybe one, a little bit of efficiency to offset that, but none of it's perfect. I mean, every time we move energy from one type to energy to another, we're gonna have a little bit of loss of efficiency. But yeah, I think just the abundance of rocks, is a great argument in itself. - But it's also interesting 'cause it's like geothermal energy's been like a really hot area, you know? And- I didn't mean it that way.
But it has that similarity of like, you know, fundamentally, it's hot rocks driving some sort of engine. - Yeah, absolutely. - I should have taken that geology class. - So what were some of the user comments and questions that we didn't address well? What were some of the things that came up that we should be talking to? - So yeah, one of them was the, you know, conversion out of, you know, the rock storage unit. The other was using it as hydrogen.
And sort of like we, we mentioned that and you know, people may have heard of green hydrogen as an energy source, but how efficient is that? How does that work? And there's also some skepticism about, you know, there's this framing about we're gonna use this to end wars, you know, and we're gonna have people be able to use their energy locally. But then you also talk about, we're gonna create it in the desert, and then ship it everywhere. So doesn't it create the same sort of problem as, you know, oil in that geopolitical sense? - Well, I think that's fair. I think that's a fair point because he does specifically talk about locating them in deserts. But I do think at the same time the Sun is pretty equally distributed, and there don't seem to be a shortage of deserts in the world.
They're in places that are both well-developed, and they're in places that are not well-developed- and they do tend to be pretty accessible to most people. There's not a lot in Europe, in mainland Europe, but they aren't that far away from places where they are more accessible. And so, does it still make sense for Europe to build theirs in other countries and ship hydrogen, you know, either by ship or rail? Maybe. But there are still plenty of places in Europe where you could build these heliostats, and have them be effective and good sources of energy.
So I think that that's a fair point that, you know, not everywhere is as hot as everywhere else, but it definitely opens up more doors. There's more flexibility with the availability of sunlight than with the availability of petroleum. - Yeah. I mean, and I think that with what we cover on "Hard Reset," a lot of it is like pretty nascent technology; like it's in its earlier stages. Concentrated solar power and solar power has been around for a while, but like this particular flavor of it, right, where you're having like AI and the sensors, like, you couldn't do it at the cost you need to scale until right about now, right? And so it's like, "Well what does this look like in 10 years from now?" Right? Are we still even talking about deserts at that point? I think we're, on a personal side, like this has changed my mentality. You know, I just bought a house, we're gonna probably do solar.
But whereas I thought solar was really on the part of the consumer, something like this makes me think much more about industrial solar. And industrial solar as being something where you just get way more efficiencies than what you can as like an individual consumer with like your house and your, you got a tree here, like the roof is shaped in a weird way. You still do it- I'm still doing it, and I definitely don't wanna be on the grid, but also industrial solar is much more appealing to me than consumer solar. - One of the things I like about this technology and this conversation is it does shift the burden to being towards people who have larger purchasing power. So like, much of the conversation around climate change, and what we can do about it has been individualized to like, "These are the steps that you can take."
It's like, "I am one person," right? Like, there are massive multinational corporations who are providing much more of a carbon footprint, and they don't seem to be doing much at all- because it's hard, right? These are hard things to have to do. And so, like a technology like this, actually seems like, "Hey, why aren't you doing that?" That is a question that we can now ask them. And there's a feasibility and there's a dialogue that can happen that wasn't happening before. But I do wanna go back to the war thing 'cause I think it's interesting because I think humans need very little reason to want to kill other human beings. - We always create them. - Yeah, and so...
- In our comment section- - And part of me thinks about like, the narrative around like, resource wars as it is just a narrative: It's a story we tell ourselves. Like, and we're gonna find other stories to fill that gap. But it's interesting to think about like, if we could remove some of those resource issues that are at the center of a lot of conflicts, what does then become the excuse for people to enter into these conflicts? And so we talk about it as a 'hard reset' that's gonna like, for war essentially, in this episode; and it might be the 'hard reset' is just on the narrative around war rather than us who to be having war in the first place. - And where are we fighting those wars as well, right? - Yeah. Yeah.
- Because that's also part of the narrative around it. I mean, I think the sad truth is that there's always gonna be some form of war, right? We just seem like a species that really likes that for whatever reason. But at least the wars that we've talked about, being over over oil and gas, something like this seems like it will at least stop that or curb it, right? - Well in fairness, like we had war before we had fossil fuels, right? And currently, the big war in the world is Russia, which has a massive amount of fossil fuels waging war on a different country which doesn't have as much.
- So that's not even over over this. It's not even over. - It's not even over. - It's just like, "I want." - Well, and the question that I wonder when we talk about this is how much of what drives these sorts of conflicts is just scarcity.
Not of any particular thing, but just in general. And I don't know that the conflict in Ukraine is driven by scarcity as much as it is... - Ego? - Ego and madness. - Yeah, that's what I was gonna go with. But I do think scarcity has long been what drove people to move from place to place to invade another, you know, people's territory or to take resources from those people. And I think if we can reduce scarcity, we can reduce the reason to fight, and the reason to kill each other.
The more people who have better choices, and don't have to make as many hard choices, the less likely they are to resort to violence. - Yeah, I think it's also worth noting that yes, I think that there will always be some form of violence and war that's out there, but there's way less of it now. - Oh, right. - The trends are are all going in the right direction. And so I think some of these, you know, you call 'em excuses, but you know, scarcity's real and what I really love about the story and when I rewatched it again today, was just, you know, this guy Bill Gross has been on this odyssey for a half century, right? And the idea of like the Arab oil embargo, like really sparking this idea that like, you know, there's another part of the world where they can just cut off our supply, and like, it changes everything that I have to deal with right now. You know, I think about oil and gas not only in terms of, you know, with the price at the pump, but just, you know, we're talking about food as well, and shipping this and that and you know? All this stuff comes down to energy at the end of the day, and democratizing that, having it in more places all over the world, seems like a generally good thing for reducing conflict because there is less scarcity.
- Yeah, the more ways we have to create, capture, and distribute energy, the better. - Because there's some that'll work better in different places than others. - Yeah, I mean the side of this that- we didn't touch because Heliogen is not dealing with this, but is the grid, but that's all a whole- - Oh goodness.
That's a whole other arena. We have to move it. We have to move a lot this electricity. - Yeah, exactly. - Well, one thing that comes up always in our comments whenever we deal with renewable energy is, "Well, solar only works when the Sun is shining," and stuff like that.
And to some extent, this addresses that because it has the rock batteries, it has the liquid hydrogen. But when you're talking about something like an industrial application, like you know, okay, when you want it to be a thousand degrees to run a steel plant, is that gonna be a viable option for if you run a steel plant? - That's a great question. I think it's an unanswered engineering question.
I think when you have bright sunlight, it's no problem to run this and run a steel refinery. Where, yeah, at nighttime that gets complicated. And the question is, can you store energy in these rocks in a way- can you have one that, during the day, that stores energy into the rocks, and you blow that back out with the air onto the steel to melt it during the night? Is that energy efficient? Is it worth doing that? Those are all questions I don't have the answer to, but I think there are certainly ways of storing this energy, this heat, and that can be used either as electricity or as thermal energy.
- It also doesn't have to be an all or nothing for some of these things, right? Like if you can do this for a X amount of days that you couldn't do this before, that's still better than like all the time having to use fossil fuels. So like fine, we'll use fossil fuels when the Sun isn't out; like that seems like a decent trade-off for us to make here. - Yeah. In manufacturing, industrial applications, any number of things, like they're modeling all this out, you know, they're predicting doing it. I mean, there's this concept of spillage that I really like where it's just like, "Yeah, you know, we're gonna break like 5% of things, like 10% of things. We want that to be less, but like we're accounting for that aspect of it."
So I don't think that anybody's expecting this, well they shouldn't be expecting this to work perfectly all day, all night, all year-round. - One thing that I was curious about, since so much of this is reliant on software: what is like their focus on cybersecurity? 'Cause I imagine all of of these things are talking to each other through some type of internet, even if it's not publicly like connected to a public internet- and cybersecurity of industrial plants and industrial facilities is actually something that has not been focused on enough. And so, for so much of this to be software-based, are they doing any protocols to like prevent like any sort of directed attacks that you've seen in some industrial places? - We didn't ask about that directly, and it didn't come up, but it's a great question. I find it hard to imagine that they wouldn't be, I mean it's got to be front of mind for everyone, especially with more and more potential, you know, cybersecurity threats. But, I think some of it is a much lower-risk proposition to have a plant like this, that requires some sort of cybersecurity, than say our existing grid, right? - Or a nuclear power plant. - Or, yeah.
- If the software goes on the fritz for this, then that place isn't generating power. If the software goes on the fritz at a nuclear power plant, the consequences could be much more severe. I don't wanna say that 'cause I don't wanna fearmonger about nuclear 'cause I actually think it's... But even places like coal-fire plants, and even places like that, where we think of it as, you know, less pernicious than nuclear, there's tremendous amounts of danger there if the software gets hacked into that. And so it's the same for existing infrastructure and it's the same for our grid; where we have really, really old infrastructure that needs to be replaced and updated and is not secure, cyber or otherwise. - Yeah, and there's companies like Palantir that are coming out and really trying to address a lot of these utilities and things that we haven't really thought about as needing cybersecurity- really getting into that.
It's hard, but there's also a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of security that could come about. - Yeah, the way that I think about it is, and not to belabor this point, but it's interested parties, right? And so, if people wanted to, for whatever reason, go after certain places like what Heliogen is building, there is an easier component for them to attack, which is the software; that if they know that if they mess that up, it messes up the whole thing. - Right. And, you know, interested parties going after nuclear facilities happen, like that's what the Stuxnet virus was that Israel did to Iran's nuclear facilities.
So, it's possible we've built these things so somebody could want to do this if they wanted to protect their economic interest. Would they? I don't know. - And I think part of the hope is that you can achieve scale so quickly here- and we're talking about rocks and mirrors. I mean, not that these things don't have costs associated with them, but it's very different than something like Hoover Dam, where it's like there's only so many rivers that generate that and it takes so much, you know, like, you know, time, energy, resources to do something like this. Where it's like, "Yeah, just build some more mirrors."
- It's also, it's pretty- like to reset the system, there's probably not as much involved in it as there is with other complex systems, because again, the basic elements they're using to this is they're so basic, right? - Were there any other specific questions from the audience that we want to address or any comment questions or comments that they had that we might wanna respond to directly? - Sure. We have a bunch. For one, how do you clean the mirrors? - Soap and water. Yeah, I definitely saw comments on the YouTube page about how do these get dirty and dusty- and yeah, you have to spray them off. But it, you know, it's the sort of thing that's sort of routine maintenance, that's pretty typical. - And I think they're trying to automate that.
- Yeah, exactly. And that's certainly something that can be automated and monitored through any number of technologies. So that's definitely something that can be done very affordably and sustainably as well. - Cool. And it mentioned that there were shot glasses used in the mirror construction- is that literally? - Those are literally- so if you look at the build, the sandwich look of these things, the heliostats, there's a layer of mirror on top of a layer of shot glasses-looking things and those are actually shot glasses that are then mounted to it. And the reason for that, I found really interesting, is that they were looking for something that had those kinds of thermal properties that would create a gap, and it was structurally sound, and they came up with the glass shape and they found that the cheapest way to do this was just buy them- shot glasses from a restaurant supply chain.
- Just unsold ones. - By the way, they hate those. - They're trying to replace those.
- I think, you know, what you saw in the video was their plants in Lancaster, which is very much their testing facility. Like it's so small compared to what this will actually look like in terms of what they're really building. And with those, I don't think they're gonna use shot glasses. - I don't think so. But it's a great example of like scrappy engineering kind of thinking about like, "How can we quickly prototype this?" And it's one of those things that I found really charming about how they were willing to just like do things in a little bit unconventional way to get the job done. - Yeah. And we should also mention that, you know,
we work with Steve Shell, who's their CTO, years ago actually, because he was running a 3D printing company. And so I think that kind of engineering mentality, that maker mentality in terms of like, "What could I 3D print?" and all that kind of stuff, is very much in his mindset. So it makes sense that they would do something like shot glasses. - Yeah.
- And end of life they can resell them as shot glasses. - Yep. - Zero waste.
- Yep. The last thing I would love to cover is just for what's been happening lately- and talk about any other kind of developments with the company. It's actually pretty exciting. So it looks like they have development deals with Woodside in Australia to do a solar plant in Australia, and as well as they have a lease for the Brenda Energy Zone, which is a green energy zone in Arizona, near the California border.
So they are starting to build these and they're also I think putting together their manufacturing plant right now- so this is happening. It's kind of exciting to see this all come together, and it seems like it's actually gonna be a real thing. - Yeah, and I would also assume that their competitors are probably starting to adopt very similar technology.
I'm sure it's someone in the comments like that really knows the concentrated solar power community much better, probably knows it. But you know, one of the things that I really like that a CEO from a different company said is, "That it's not a big idea unless there's a lot of competitors." Right? And so we've seen a lot of solar plants, a lot of concentrated solar plants all over the world- everybody's trying to best each other, everybody's trying to be the dominant one- and so I think it's just really exciting what's gonna happen with industrial solar in the next 10 years. - Yeah, absolutely. - This also seems like even though there's, I'm sure patented technology in this, it also seems like an idea that's hard to patent once you under understand some of the basics around it, in terms of like enforcing that.
So you're gonna have lots of people who are gonna be able to build these types of things, and do some of the same capabilities of them just by being able to like understand how their technology works. - And people are gonna have different mentalities towards how they're approaching it- I mean, how many companies are trying to do autonomous driving and it's some more with LiDAR and radar, and like any number of like, how do you package all that together? - And the thing we didn't even mention is like AI has taken monumental leaps. - Oh yeah. - Even since the time that we've made this video, right? And so as that gets better, who knows how better the system can be. - So yeah, and I think for something like this, what is always really interesting is like whatever is like the central compute on something like the artificial intelligence, but also like local compute: So under each heliostat, those sensors, that technology, getting smarter, individually. And I think that matters in something like this where you're putting out an array of, you know, 50,000 of these things- - right.
- as like you can have like little, tiny computers in each of them that could be that much smarter- I think is really interesting. - Yeah, for sure. The last thing, the most important thing, is were there any really nasty, mean comments? - Well, we did get some that we've touched on earlier: "There's one of these in my town, and it's really ugly, and kills birds." - There's probably not one of these in your town.
Unless your town is in like... yeah. - If they live in the desert. - Unless you live in Lancaster, California, there's probably not one. - I mean people often comment on the drive from L.A. to Vegas,
and that there's one that's similar to this on that drive. - Actually, I did see on the comments there were a lot of confusion with ones that are being built in North Africa, and ones that are being built in Nevada- and it's like, they're very different. They're very different scales. They're a very different type, and I do wish we had maybe made that more clear, because they are very different; there's only really one of these at the moment. - And, you know, I need to apologize because I feel like I didn't get mean-enough comments. You know, I went for like, "Okay, we'll get critical comments or skeptical ones."
But you know, and you can help me out audience. - Yeah. You know, Nick, narrates this. So it's true. - Yeah. Yeah. Any about Nick's narration style. - Yeah. Any comments you have about my bad dad jokes, I'm more than happy to hear 'em.
- But we did get one, which is evergreen whenever we do any sort of energy story, which is, you know, Benji says, "Nuclear energy: look what they need to do to get just a fraction of my power." So- - That's good. - That's fair. - This is always a question. Like, "Why don't we just do nuclear?" You know? - I think it's a fair comment actually.
I think it's gotta be and, not or, though. Like, I'm a big advocate for nuclear, and I think that it gets a bad rap for all sorts of crazy reasons, and we should do more of it, but we also should do more of this because it would be great if we didn't have to do nuclear, and have some of those trade-offs and downsides. - Definitely a lot easier to get sunlight than like, you know, uranium. - I don't know.
No, I think you're right. But yeah, that is a fair point. And I think that we need more energy period. Whether it's- We need more green energy period, whether or not it's nuclear or solar or wind, but as long as you're killing birds, that's all the matters.
- Don't say that. - Sorry. I couldn't resist. - Oh my God. I like birds, I really do. - He likes birds.
- I like birds. - The Audubon Society is not a fan. - Deep fry them. - Well, thanks everyone, for watching and listening to the "Hard Reset" podcast. I hope you enjoyed this, and we really enjoyed putting it together for you.
So make sure that you leave us a comment or a review and click like and subscribe so that we can keep reaching out to you with this content. And we really do learn a lot from your comments, and we would love to hear what are the things we forgot to ask, and what are the stories we should be covering. So please do that, and we'll see you on the next episode.
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