Sunday, April 24, 2016

Maria Telkes, Chemist and Inventor

Maria Telkes
Maria Telkes was one of the first scientists to discover practical uses for the sun's energy. She invented a device that allowed downed airmen and sailors to distill salt water during WWII, and created the first house utilizing solar energy.

"Sunlight will be used as a source of energy sooner or later.... why wait?" ~ Maria Telkes

Maria Telkes was born on December 12, 1900 in Budapest, Hungary. Her parents were Aladar and Maria Laban de Telkes. Maria was interested in science at an early age and thrived in high school, then completed a B.A. in physical chemistry at Budapest University. She went on to complete her doctorate in physical chemistry, graduating in 1924.

After graduation, Maria worked for one year at the university as an instructor, but her life took a turn when she went to visit a relative in the United States. Her relative was the Hungarian consul in Cleveland, and during Maria's stay she was offered a job at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation to investigate the power produced by living organisms.

She accepted the job and remained in the position for twelve years working for scientist George Crile. Together, Maria and Crile invented a photoelectronic mechanism for recording brain waves, then collaborated on a book, Phenomenon of Life, to present their findings.

Maria's work on the nature of brain waves continued at the Foundation as she explored the source of that energy, what happens to it when a cell dies, and what changes occur when a cell becomes a cancer cell.

In 1937 Maria became an American citizen. That same year she would start working on a project that had captured her imagination ever since she was a child: how to capture heat energy and use its power in other ways.

Saving lives with solar energy

In 1939 Maria joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Solar Energy Conservation Project, where she built on her thermoelectric conversion research from the prior two years; this time, however, she would be using the sun as the source of energy.

With the onset of World War II, the U.S. government started looking for ways to help sailors and soldiers facing specific challenges in the field. Battles in the Pacific Ocean were leaving sailors and downed airmen stranded at sea for days, and they needed a simple way to be able to convert salt water into something that was drinkable.

Maria was recruited to serve as civilian advisor to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Her mission was to develop a device that could do this while being lightweight and portable.

Previously, salt water had been converted into clean drinking water by heating it and turning it into steam, leaving the salt behind, then cooling the air so the steam condensed back into pure water. Maria simplified this process and made it packable with the invention of a solar still, a lightweight water distillation device that used plastic film and the heat of the sun.

From the 1966 patent for Maria's solar still,
US Patent Office.
It was perfect for warm, tropical climates and was added to emergency medical kits, where it saved the lives of many downed airmen and sailors desperate for water after their ships had been torpedoed.

Maria's solar still invention was also created on a larger scale to process a higher volume of water; this system was put in place in the Virgin Islands, which did not have a large, reliable supply of fresh water. In 1945, Maria  received the OSRD Certificate of Merit for this invention.

First solar house

In 1948 Maria began working on one of her most famous projects, the Dover Sun House. Designed by Eleanor Raymond and financed by sculptor Amelia Peabody, the house was the first of its kind, heated entirely by solar energy.

To accomplish the conversion, Maria utilized a salt that would melt in the sun, capturing its energy, then release it as heat energy when the salt cooled and hardened.

In her system, sunlight passed through large glass windows to heat air trapped behind glass. The heat from the air was then passed through a metal sheet and into another air space. From there, fans moved the hot air into storage compartments filled with the salt, a solution of sodium sulphate. The storage compartments were kept in the walls, so the walls heated the house as the salt cooled, releasing the sun's energy.

The system was very cost effective and more efficient than any other alternative at the time. It worked well in the winter of Massachusetts when the house needed warming, and in the summer when the house got hot, the salt solution in the walls cooled the air inside by drawing out some of the heat.

The technology was heralded as an exciting breakthrough, and the fact that the house was developed and financed by three professional women made the project even more of a sensation. Maria was presented with the Society of Women Engineers' inaugural Achievement Award in 1952 in recognition of this accomplishment.

Developing a solar oven

The woman who would come to be known as the "Sun Queen" continued to work with solar energy after the development of the house. In 1953 she went to work for the College of Engineering at New York University, and organized a solar lab so she could continue her work.

Maria furthered her development of solar stills and heating systems, then was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to develop a solar oven for use in poor countries - her instructions were that it must be simple to make, and able to maintain a heat of 350 degrees, hot enough to bake bread or cook a roast.

Maria accomplished this by developing a cheap, easily operated oven that could heat to the required levels when the temperature outside was in the sixties. The ovens could cook any type of food, were safe for children, did not burn or scorch foods, and allowed the cook to do other tasks, as the food did not have to be constantly monitored.

Maria's solar ovens would be utilized by nations and in villages around the world.

Challenges of sea and space

In 1958 Maria was hired as the Director of Research at the Princeton Division of the Curtis-Wright Company, and she turned her attention to outer space. She researched solar dryers, and the possibility of using solar thermoelectric generators in outer space.

From 1961-63 Maria worked on the development of materials that could be used to safely store equipment that would be damaged by changes in temperature. The materials developed from this work were utilized in shipping and storage containers for such projects as the Apollo and Polaris, where the extreme temperatures of outer space and the deepest ocean posed a challenge to sensitive yet vital equipment.

In 1963, Maria became head of the solar energy laboratory at MELPAR company, where she continued her work on technology for converting salt water to fresh water for another six years. By 1969 she had received patents in the United States for her methods of storing solar heat.

Solar One

In the 1970s America experienced its first real oil crisis, and as usual, it turned to scientists for solutions.  Dr Karl Böer, a highly regarded scientist in the field of photovoltaic energy (a subset of solar energy), was organizing a conference at the University of Delaware to develop a building called Solar One, which would be the first residential house to be powered entirely by solar energy.

Maria was enlisted for her depth of knowledge in this area. "We had a team of ten that included the best architects and engineers in the country," said Böer, "but Maria was responsible for 20 percent of the work. She had an answer for everything."

Once completed, the building generated significant interest among the public and the business world, who was recognizing the possibility of solar power for what seemed like the first time. Speaking later about Maria's accomplishments in solar energy, Böer stated that it was she who laid the groundwork for the potential for America to drastically reduce their dependance on fossil fuels.

The Solar One building, University of Deleware
In 1977 Maria was honored by the National Academy of Science Building Research Advisory Board for her contributions to solar-heated building technology. She retired from active research in 1978, though she continued to act as a consultant for several solar energy companies until 1992.

In 1995 Maria made a visit to her hometown on Budapest, Hungary, her first visit in over 70 years. She would die there on December 2nd, 1995, nearly 95 years old.


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