Alternative Energy Pioneers

Inventions that harness nature to generate some form of energy have been created for thousands of years. This quest merely intensified during the late 1800s when enlightened scientists started worrying about the possibility of the coal pits being depleted. In recent years, the effects of global warming and the damage caused to the earth’s entire ecosystem have motivated scientists, engineers and other inventors to identify or develop sustainable alternative energy sources.

Solar Pioneers

Solar energy is not the brainchild of modern man. In fact, the first written reference made to solar energy was by the Greeks in 400BC. Since then solar pioneers have proliferated. Among their ranks you will find the likes of Archimedes (c.a. 210BC), who concentrated the reflection of the sun’s rays on bronze shields to set fire to the Roman Empire’s wooden ships when they besieged Syracuse; Leonardo da Vinci (1500s), who, centuries ahead of his contemporaries in thought, invented a solar parabolic concentrator for industrial purposes (cloth dying); Antoine Lavoisier, who invented, built and proved the first solar platinum smelter during the 1700s, reaching temperatures of up to 1780 deg C (3236 deg F); French physicist Edmond Becquerel (c.a. 1839) who illustrated the photovoltaic (PV) effect, the workings of which were later fully explained by the inimitable Albert Einstein; Auguste Mouchout, who invented the first solar powered motor in 1860; John Ericsson who invented and demonstrated the parabolic trough in New York in 1883, the modernized version of which is still in use today; and Luz Co., who erected 10 solar power plants with a throughput of 355 Megawatts towards the end of the 20th century. So, let us take a look at the roles played by the more recent of these solar pioneers.

Auguste Mouchout

Most of the information available about this inventor concerns the period between 1860 and 1882. What is known is that Auguste Mouchout was a mathematics instructor at the Lyce de Tours in France and that he had a preoccupation with alternative energy sources. It is this passion that led to his invention of the first known solar-powered motor in 1860.

After patenting his design in 1861, Mouchout spent much of his time and resources refining his groundbreaking invention. In 1865, he managed to use his dish-shaped reflector to run a small steam engine. This success gave him sufficient confidence to demonstrate his invention in 1866 to Napoleon III, the Emperor of France. The success of the demonstration secured Mouchout the funding he needed for further research and development.

With funds at his disposal, Mouchout increased the capacity, streamlined the design and invented a tracking mechanism that enabled the dish shaped reflector to follow the sun. In 1872 he displayed his work to the French public for the first time. Mouchout’s next step was to power a water pump with this motor. This worked well and after he reported the results of his testing, the government instructed him to deploy his invention in Algeria.

He received additional funding – liberal funding that enabled him to further increase the capacity of his invention and to implement a double boiler system. This marked the beginning of nearly ten years of work closely observed by the French government and by academic peers, including commissioners from the French Academy of Science tasked with assessing the economic feasibility of the Mouchout solar device.

After the deployment, in 1878, Mouchout offered the Parisian public a further demonstration – this time at the Paris Exposition. He employed his solar motor to successfully power a refrigeration device and was rewarded with a medal for his efforts.
Three years and some 900 observations later, the French government reached the conclusion that while the Mouchout invention was technically sound, it was not economically viable. This was largely due to a shift in the economics of fuel at the time: The reduction in the price of coal meant that the pressure on the French money coffers was gone – and without this pressure, Mouchout’s invention was deemed unnecessary. The funding was withdrawn abruptly and Mouchout ended up returning to academic life.

However, Auguste Mouchout’s work was not in vain, as it formed the foundation for the parabolic trough invented by Capt. John Ericsson towards the later part of the 19th century.

John Ericsson

John Ericsson
Captain John Ericsson was born in the Verneland province of Sweden on July 31, 1803. Much of his illustrious career as inventor and engineer was spent improving the building naval vessels – particularly the design of better engines and propellers – but he also invested a lot of time refining the functioning of the steam locomotive. This focus continued after he moved to the USA in November 1839 and it was only really after 1869 that he started taking an active interest in alternative energy.

The very first invention Ericsson staked claim to (c.a. 1870) was perhaps too similar to that of Auguste Mouchout to be considered pioneering. Like Mouchout’s solar-powered engine, Ericsson’s design made use of a conical reflector via which sunrays were concentrated on a boiler. It wasn't until 1883 that his first real alternative energy invention was made: the parabolic trough. The parabolic trough resembles a cylinder cut in half, lengthwise. The beauty of the design is in its linearity. Unlike the dish-shaped concentrator, the parabolic trough could track the sun linearly – meaning that if it was standing on its side, it moved in a line from east to west and if it was in a horizontal position, up and down. Both the construction and the tracking systems required were much simpler and considerably cheaper.

Ericsson wanted to commercialize his designs. He spent some years refining it – particularly the aspect of reducing the gross weight and simplifying the assembly. His intent was to supply his solar-powered machines for irrigation purposes to farmers in arid parts of the U.S.
It is indeed a pity that Ericsson had a somewhat eccentric attachment to secrecy regarding his research, given that he died in 1889 with no record of the extent of his progress on what was reputed to be a much more advanced solar motor.

Even so, the invention of the parabolic trough is significant. In 1912, it enabled the construction of a 45kW power generation plant in Meadi, Egypt. Sadly, a combination of the advent of First World War and waning interest in alternative energy due to lower fossil fuel prices forced the plant to close down. The demise of the Meadi Plant did not mean the end of the parabolic trough. This invention, in its modernized form, survived and spawned the growth of alternative energy industry. Luz Co. immediately comes to mind, as an example of a company that took the initiative to see where this technology might lead.

Luz Co.

While Luz Co. is not an individual pioneer, the trailblazing influence of their solar power facility construction has made a huge impact on bringing alternative energy to the popular consciousness. By making use of parabolic troughs, Luz erected 10 solar electric generation facilities between 1985 and 1991, totaling an impressive 355 Megawatts of power. Put into perspective, this means that Luz Co. was producing around 95% of the world’s solar power. Luz engineers were finishing off the designs for a mega solar energy facility, which was targeted to generate in excess of 300 Megawatt at $0.069c, and which would have placed the cost of solar power in line with the pricing of ‘mainstream’ power, when the company filed for bankruptcy.

When all is said in done, the Luz story is not unlike the Mouchout story. The decline in fossil fuel prices took the pressure off government to find cheaper alternatives, and with this pressure gone, both tax credits and funding were withdrawn. Newton Becker, Luz Co. Chairman of the Board, stated in the end: "The failure of the world's largest solar electric company was not due to technological or business judgment failures but rather to failures of government regulatory bodies to recognize the economic and environmental benefits of solar thermal generating plants."

The Luz plants are still in operation under the management of a utilities consortium. Using their formula, several new plants have been born – ironically with U.S. Federal and State funding – one of which is Solar Two. However, it is not only the sun that generates heat. Heat is contained within the earth as well, and that is what gave rise to geothermal power.

Geothermal Energy

Prince Piero Ginori Conti proved in the year 1904 that electrical energy can be generated by geothermal fluids. His illustration of this fact involved lighting five light bulbs using geothermal energy. A mere two years later, his work on geothermal energy (specifically natural endogenous steam) was employed commercially to power the motors for drilling equipment in a small Italian town called Larderello. Shortly the entire town of Larderello was lit up by geothermal energy. The capacity of their power plant continued to increase, and reached 11,000 Kilowatt shortly before World War II wreaked its devastation.

Ignoring the fact that Italy generates a massive 559 Megawatt in electricity from geothermic energy via its 30 power plants and 216 production plants, the real legacy of Prince Piero Ginori Conti’s pioneering invention is that it inspired others to look even further - beyond the hydrothermal aspect. Power generation by means of the other types of geothermal energy types, namely geo-pressured hot dry rock and magma, is actively researched and, in some instances, employed in the world today.

The Prince was fortunate in that he was able to commercialize his invention immediately. Those on the front lines of the Cold Fusion battle are certainly less fortunate.

Cold Fusion

The irreverent, irrepressible and incredible Dr. Eugene Mallove is a good example of a cold fusionist who spent much of his career out in the cold.

“A world of abundant, clean, and safe energy from sources that have no centralized geopolitical control.”

These words in Eugene Mallove's Open Letter to the World, sent out by him days before he was murdered, describe what motivated this unique, determined and visionary man. Mallove was the evangelist of cold fusion. For the fifteen years or more before his death, Mallove stalwartly faced mainstream scientific skeptics, critics and disbelievers, offering them his logic and research results in return for their heckling and unsubstantiated arguments. He doggedly pursued the quest for government funding in spite of rebuffs and stonewalling – a 15-year long effort that semi-paid off in 2004 when the Department of Energy agreed to reconsider its stance upon being presented with convincing evidence of atypical reactions of what they termed "Low Energy Nuclear Reactions" (LENR), and he continued his research with dedication to illustrate the viability of cold fusion as the most appropriate and sustainable form of alternative energy.

He first fell out of favor in the scientific community in 1989 when he resigned from MIT after suspecting that test data of a Pons-Fleischmann replication study had been manipulated to result in a negative outcome. This negative outcome culminated in cold fusion being publicly declared impossible. In his controversial first book (which incidentally got nominated for a Pulitzer prize), “Fire From Ice: Searching for the Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furor,” Mallove reported on a successful cold fusion test undertaken at the University of Utah two years earlier and how mainstream science suppressed the positive results achieved. “Fire and Ice” was directly responsible for the revival of interest in cold fusion as an alternative form of energy.

Over the years that followed, Mallove spent much of his time and effort in sharing information with energy researchers around the world, mostly via Infinite Energy, a magazine distributed in 40 countries to thousands of subscribers, and by traveling extensively to make direct contact with like-minded peers. So he continued tirelessly until his premature death in 2004.

Perhaps that portion of the scientific community that spurned and ridiculed the work of Dr. Eugene Mallove will one day turn around and acknowledge him for what he was: a true pioneer.

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