Saturday, March 04, 2006

 

A Pioneer in Solar Energy



Maria Telkes, known both as the “Sun Queen,” and the “Mother of the Solar Home,” was a pioneer in the use of solar energy. A strong, dedicated woman, Maria predicted immense possibilities for the sun’s energy long before the world of solar heated homes and solar run cars. Her impact on the scientific world cannot be ignored, as new inventions using solar energy are continually being developed in the twenty-first century.
Maria de Telkes was born on December 12, 1900 in Budapest, Hungary. Maria’s interest in science and especially solar energy blossomed throughout high school. This was the start of a spectacular career. Upon graduation, Maria decided to commit to a life of science research. She completed both her undergraduate and doctorate work in physical chemistry at Budapest University. In 1925, on a visit to her uncle in the United States, Dr. Telkes was offered a position as a biophysicist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She accepted the job and started a new life in America.
Maria became a naturalized United States citizen in 1937, and began working as a research engineer at Westinghouse Electric that same year. Maria marked the start of her well-known career as a research associate in metallurgy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939. It was here that she began focusing her research on solar energy. As part of the Solar Energy Conversion Project, Maria and her team of researchers received a private grant to build the first house to use the sun as its main energy source. Maria was the supervisor for this project, and she designed the heat storage system. The Dover House, also known as the Carlisle Solar House (picture)was completed in 1948 and it's heating system relied completely on solar energy. Maria also worked on designs for a solar oven while at MIT.
During World War II, Dr. Telkes was hired by the United States Government as a civilian advisor to the Office of Scientific Research and Development. She designed a solar still to be used on life rafts. A solar still is a system that uses energy from the sun to convert salt water into drinking water. Heat from the sun is concentrated to evaporate fresh water, leaving salt and other solids behind. The fresh water is then condensed and ready to drink. Dr. Telkes’ solar stills on life rafts were able to produce about a quart of drinking water per day. This invention was widely used by U.S. soldiers throughout the war, and a more complex, fine-tuned version is still in use today.
Although Maria had already accomplished so much in the field of solar energy by 1951, its possibilities had not yet caught on throughout the United States and the world. Maria predicted in a well-known publication that interest in solar energy would begin to expand in 1975. Maria relentlessly continued her research, and was recognized for her success in 1952, when she became the first recipient of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award.
In 1953, Maria moved to New York University and organized a solar energy laboratory in the College of Engineering. She worked for NYU for five years until accepting a position as Director of Research for Solar Energy at the Curtiss-Wright Company. Here she worked towards the development of solar dryers and water heaters, and studied possible applications of solar thermoelectric generators in space. She also developed the heating and energy storage system for a laboratory building owned by Curtiss-Wright in Princeton, New Jersey.
Maria began working for Cryo-Therm, developing materials for protecting temperature-sensitive instruments in 1961. She left the company in 1963 and returned to solar energy research at the MELPAR Company, where she was head of the solar energy application lab.
From 1969 to 1978, Maria worked at the Institute of Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware. As predicted, interest in solar energy was on the rise. Maria received a number of patents for systems that worked to store solar energy during her stint at the University of Delaware. Her greatest accomplishment while in Delaware was her contribution to Solar One, a solar heated building at the university. Maria was the 1977 recipient the Charles Greeley Abbot Award, presented to her from the American Solar Energy Society.
Maria retired from active research at 1978, but remained a consultant to several solar energy companies until the early 1990s. On December 2, 1995, Maria passed away during her first visit to her native Hungary since moving to the United States. Although she is not alive to see the development of solar powered inventions today, her influence on the scientific world is impossible to forget.

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