When I first saw the SunCatcher, a new dish-shaped solar reflector that powers a piston motor to generate electricity, I thought “this is pretty cool.” But it also gave new meaning to the well-worn phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Because although the SunCatcher won the “Best Commercialized Technological Innovation Award” at this year’s Concentrated Solar Power Summit, it’s not really new. In fact, the basic technology was first invented by a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln — French mathematician and inventor Augustin Mouchot.
Like many industrious men of the age of invention, Mouchot was captivated by the raw power of industrial steam engines. But unlike most, he feared that European industry’s vast appetite for coal was unsustainable. And so, around 1860, he began experimenting with an alternative source of power—sunlight.
Mouchot’s major breakthrough was combining a simple hotbox solar collector — essentially an insulated wooden box covered with a pane of glass—with a mirror to concentrate sunlight on the collector. Although hotboxes had been around the at least a century and burning mirrors since the time of the ancient Greeks, Mouchot was the first to bring them together, making him the father of concentrated solar power.
Mouchot’s revolutionary convergence of solar technologies culminated in his grandest achievement—a working, solar-powered steam engine the he displayed in 1867 at the World’s Fair in Paris. The device looked remarkably like Stirling’s cutting edge SunCatcher, consisting of a cone-shaped mirror focusing sunlight on a blackened boiler rising up from its center. Steam from the boiler ran a small but practical one-half horsepower steam engine at 80 strokes per minute—enough to pump hundreds of gallons of water, distill wine into brandy, and do other work. Around a decade later, Mouchot displayed a larger, more powerful version of his solar engine at the Paris World’s Fair of 1878.
The fact that the SunCatcher is in many ways merely an upgraded version of Mouchot’s pioneering device takes nothing away from Stirling Energy’s achievement. But there are lessons to be gleaned from Mouchot. His solar engine, obviously, did not displace the more powerful coal-powered steam engines of the day, largely because coal reserves did not begin to run out as Mouchot had feared. In fact, they increased throughout Europe, lowering the price of coal and making it impossible for Mouchot’s solar engine to compete economically. In the late 1800s he abandoned solar engineering and returned to mathematics.
Today, even with advanced materials and technology, solar inventor face the same daunting problem of dollars (or francs) Global coal reserves are abundant and, at least in the United States, coal-generated electricity remains relatively inexpensive compared to solar power. But where Mouchot’s fears about the unsustainable nature of coal-driven power went unheeded, similar arguments now resonate widely. As growing economies in China and India demand more coal, electricity prices are certain to rise. Climate change is an ever-present issue. And with the Gulf of Mexico ruined for the foreseeable future by the BP oil spill, the time seems ripe for the SunCatcher and other inventive solar technologies to step forward and do Mouchot one better by becoming more than fairground curiosities.
Article by Jeremy Shere, appearing courtesy Matter Network.