Did you know that Frank Shuman was born today in 1862? He was an American inventor and engineer known for his work with solar energy. His designs used light and energy from the sun to turn water to steam in closed pipes. The steam was used to turn a turbine (a device like a water wheel). When the steam condensed back into a liquid, it went back through the pipes to be heated by the sun again. In 1912, Frank Shuman built the world’s first solar power station in Egypt. The energy generated was used to pump 6,000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to irrigate a cotton field.
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Frank Shuman also holds patents for making wired safety glass and laminated safety glass. The shatter-proof “Safetee-Glass” was used for skylights, windshields, goggle lenses, and more; his patents and processes made him a wealthy man and gave him the freedom to investigate and invent more things.
In 1897, Frank Shuman demonstrated the viability of solar energy. He built a set of one-foot square hothouse boxes. A black pipe containing ether ran through the boxes. The heat and energy from the sun evaporated the ether and powered a tiny 3.5 hp steam engine. The apparatus worked both in hot weather and in the winter as long as there was enough sunlight. As he continued to research and improve his designs he also developed other technologies such as low-pressure steam turbines that would work well with the steam generated from sun-heated water and found ways to use vacuum chambers to reduce the boiling temperature of water. In 1910, he had built another demonstration plant; this one used water and generated 25 horsepower. By 1912, he had patented plans for an entire solar engine system.
The solar power plant in Egypt used parabolic troughs that acted like mirrors to concentrate the sun’s light on the pipes carrying the water and powered a 60-70 horsepower engine, which could pump enough water to irrigate the fields with 6,000 gallons of water per minute.
After the success of the solar-powered irrigation plant along the Nile, there were plans for other solar plants in India and other parts of Africa. Shuman had enthusiastic support for these plants, but World War I brought the projects and interests in solar power to a halt. About 60 years passed before interest in solar energy started again.
Click here for text from an article by Frank Shuman regarding solar energy.