Had We Paid Attention to Frank Shuman….

“One thing I feel sure of is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarianism” – Frank Shuman (1862-1918)

Frank Shuman was an American visionary – part engineer, part inventor – a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1897, Shuman demonstrated a “solar engine” constructed at his home. By reflecting sunlight onto cubes filled with ether, a substance with a lower boiling point than water, pipes inside the cubes created steam which powered a toy engine continuously for two years.

In 1908 he formed the Sun Power Company with the intention of building large power plants. By now his improved system of reflecting solar energy with mirrors meant water could be used instead of ether. He invented a low pressure steam turbine that processed energy 4 times faster than any turbine of the day. Patented in 1912 and featured in Scientific American magazine several times during 1911 -12, Shuman appeared to have captured imagination.

Between 1912-1913, Shuman built the worlds first solar energy plant in Meadi, Egypt. Solar powered engines pumped 6000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile river into a now fertile cotton field. Using a system of troughs, mirrored heat collectors aligned to follow the sun’s path, he concentrated solar energy into boilers capable of realizing his dream to transform the Sahara into a jewel. For several years, nary a ripple interrupted Shuman’s remarkable invention.

Financial backing from the British and German governments fanned Shuman’s plan to build a series of power plants along the Nile. Intent on challenging coal as an energy source, Shuman declared it would take only 20,250 square miles of the Sahara to provide enough energy for the entire world. The first world war squelched his dream – funding became the joke that saw his power plant demolished by the British government for scrap metal needed for munitions. Shuman dies in 1918.

Pondering Frank Shuman has me struggling with emotions. My gut reaction is sadness, followed by admiration, respect and clarity that only comes from hindsight. Shuman didn’t stand a chance against “big coal” and soon to be “big oil”. I get that yet can’t help wondering what might have been if we had paid attention to Frank Shuman.


Image – renewablebook.com