A Bill Gates-backed solar company is set to power the giant Rio Tinto borates mine in Boron, California, to help reduce emissions from the site.

The Anglo-Australian miner has reached an agreement with California-based start-up Heliogen, which will deploy its proprietary, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technology at the mining operation, where it will use heat from the sun to generate and store carbon-free energy to power the mine’s industrial processes.

The two companies will begin detailed planning and securing government permits for the project, with the aim of starting operations from 2022.


Rio Tinto exploring opportunities to use Heliogen’s solar technology across its global portfolio

The Boron installation will be used to explore the potential for deployments of Heliogen’s technology at Rio Tinto’s other operations around the world to supply process heat, which accounted for 14% of Scope 1 and 2 emissions from the world’s second-largest miner’s managed operations in 2020.

Rio Tinto CEO Jakob Stausholm said: “This partnership with Heliogen has the potential to significantly reduce our emissions at Boron by using this ground-breaking solar technology, and we look forward to exploring opportunities across our global portfolio.

“Addressing climate change effectively will require businesses, governments and society to work together through partnerships like this one, to explore innovative new solutions throughout the entire value chain.

“Our work with Heliogen is part of Rio Tinto’s commitment to spend approximately $1bn on emissions reduction initiatives through to 2025 and our commitment to work with world-leading technology providers to achieve this goal.”


Heliogen’s solar technology is designed to cost-effectively replace fossil fuels

Alongside Bill Gates, Heliogen is backed by Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, and former AOL boss Steve Case. The company’s high-temperature solar technology is designed to cost-effectively replace fossil fuels with sunlight for a range of industrial processes, including those used in mining.

At Rio Tinto’s Boron mine, the company’s proprietary technology will use AI to control a network of mirrors that concentrate sunlight to capture energy used to make steam.

Heliogen’s system will also store the captured energy in the form of heat, allowing it to power operations at night and provide the same uninterrupted energy stream offered by legacy fuels.

The Boron operation mines and refines borates into products ranging from fertilisers to construction materials and is producing lithium carbonate from a demonstration plant. The site currently generates steam using a natural gas cogeneration plant and natural gas-fired boilers.

Heliogen’s installation will supplement these energy sources by generating up to 35,000 pounds per hour of steam to power operations, with the potential to reduce carbon emissions at the Boron site by about 7% – equivalent to taking more than 5,000 cars off the road.

Rio Tinto will also be assessing the potential for larger-scale use of the Heliogen technology at Boron to reduce the site’s carbon footprint by up to 24%.

“Since its founding, Heliogen has been laser-focused on decarbonising industrial sectors, including mining,” said Heliogen CEO and founder Bill Gross. “As a result, this agreement with Rio Tinto is incredibly gratifying.

“We’re pleased to find a partner committed to cutting its contributions to climate change. We’re also pleased that Rio Tinto is exploring our technology to play an important role in helping reach its sustainability goals while dramatically reducing its energy costs.

“More broadly, we’re excited to take this important step as we pursue Heliogen’s goal of avoiding more than one gigatonne of CO2 emissions – 5% of the world’s annual total – from the global economy by turning sunlight into an industrial energy source.”