Summary:

The heat and rays of the sun aren’t just being harnessed for electricity. An early stage startup called Thermata, backed by Bill Gross’ Idealab, is looking to build a business around solar-powered boilers that produce steam for industrial processes.

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The heat and rays of the sun aren’t just being harnessed for electricity. An early stage startup called Thermata, backed by Bill Gross’ Idealab, is looking to build a business around solar-powered boilers that produce steam for industrial processes, like paper making, food processing, and petroleum processing.

This type of industry already uses standard boilers, traditionally powered by natural gas. Thermata CEO Brad Hines said recently at the Cleantech Forum that the market for industrial heat via boilers is already a $26 billion business in the U.S. Thermata’s plan is to install heliostats (big mirrors) on the roof of a factory. The heliostats concentrate sunlight onto a receiver on top of an adjacent tower, which in turn powers the boiler to produce steam.

Hines said he thinks Thermata can produce steam in this way at a cost of $4.60 per MBTU compared to average prices for natural gas-powered steam, which can cost between $6 and $10 per MBTU. Beyond being lower cost, the process has far fewer carbon emissions.

However, you can probably already guess that it’s a complicated and expensive proposition to convince an industrial plant owner to commission the construction of one of these solar-power steam systems. It’s a separate tower, and then they have to connect the tower to the existing boiler and also install the solar tech on the roof. But Hines says even with the upfront cost, the pay-back period is two years for potential customers.

So far Thermata has a partnership with boiler and receiver maker Aalborg CSP, and has the benefit of the experience developed in the solar thermal incubation lab of Idealab. Hines was the founding CEO of concentrating solar photovoltaic startup Soliant Energy, and was VP of engineering for Idealab’s CPV startup Energy Innovations. Before that, he worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for 14 years.

Hines said that the company has been backed by $500,000 in funds from Idealab and is looking for another $600,000 from investors to build its first pilot system by 2012. Competitors include Sopogy, Chromasun, Heliodynamics and Cogenra.

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