An inventor's winding path to solar energy

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 8, 2013 

— Ron Ace says he recognized the many impediments to capturing and storing solar energy while working as a researcher in a University of Maryland molecular physics laboratory some 40 years ago and dismissed the possibility that the sun ever could be a major source of power.

Turning away from solar, he thought he’d never look back.

In the ensuing decades, Ace churned out more than 700 inventions, ranging from energy-saving devices to scratch-resistant eyeglass coatings and a cutting-edge laser instrument for measuring precursors to ozone in the upper atmosphere.

During his 10 years at Maryland, he built prototypes of 350 of his inventions, and they all worked, he said.

“If the science, the physics and engineering are all there, then it will always work,” Ace likes to say.

In the 1980s, Ace obtained several patents for eyeglass innovations – for scratch-resistant coatings, photo-chromic plastic lenses that turned dark in the sunlight, and laminated “photo glastic” lenses that blended the best qualities of glass and plastic.

A wiry man with thinning, graying hair and a voracious curiosity, Ace grew disturbed over the last decade by worldwide fears about climate change and energy shortages. Undaunted at the immensity of the challenge, he set out to try to solve some of the greatest threats to mankind.

In 2008, he briefly emerged from obscurity when McClatchy reported on his patent application for a solution to global warming – an attempt to compensate for the Earth’s dehumidifying loss of billions of trees, particularly the large-leafed ones that soak up water from the Earth and transpire it into water vapor.

He proposed to spray huge volumes of sea water into the air at key, windy spots around the planet. When the droplets evaporated, he argued, the newly formed water vapor would absorb enormous amounts of thermal energy and carry it into the atmosphere, where it would produce sun-blocking clouds, condense into cooling rain or radiate heat into space.

Kenneth Caldeira, a world-renowned Stanford University climate scientist, was intrigued enough to run a computer simulation attempting to roughly approximate Ace’s idea. The computer model used by the world’s top climate scientists projected that, with an extra centimeter of evaporation everywhere on Earth, the planet would cool by nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit within 20 to 30 years.

Caldeira said that even if the invention wasn’t embraced to fight global warming, it might address water shortages, because strategically situated evaporation of seawater would leave the salt behind, enabling winds to carry additional rainfall to arid regions such as the western United States.

So far, the invention has gained no traction.

Ironically, Ace says, it was his meandering path through multiple scientific disciplines – especially thermal heat exchange, physics and optics – that gave him the grounding he needed to dare to take on solar energy.

He was drawn back to solar energy while searching for ways to maximize the potential of his 2004 patent for an invention to distribute energy through drinking water lines to cheaply heat and cool homes and businesses.

The invention, called GeoSolar and touted by Ace on the Internet site H2OPE.US, would work on the same principle as geothermal systems being installed worldwide to cool homes by extracting energy from water piped through underground lines. But his invention offered a way to avoid the costly excavation to lay circulating underground lines.

Ace figured that if he could find cheap waste energy and pre-heat drinking water delivered to homes and businesses, GeoSolar could reduce winter heating bills by as much as 90 percent.

But he couldn’t find a big enough source of waste heat to serve everyone.

“I checked everywhere, from the bottom of the ocean, to power plants, steel plants, deep volcanic, geothermal,” he said.

In frustration, he said, he turned to solar, an option he’d “hated for 40 years.”

As he methodically tried to solve each of the barriers to solar energy, he said it began to hit him that mankind faced a more frightening energy problem than most people knew. Compiling his own spreadsheet from available data, he concluded that worldwide reserves of affordable oil, gas and coal might last as little as 56 years, even as modern man has developed “an absolute dependency” on energy – “we cannot survive without it.”

Evaluating alternatives, from nuclear to wind, he deduced that only solar could provide enough affordable energy to power the planet in the centuries ahead.

Ace felt that the latest solar technology fell far short of the mark.

Popular photovoltaic cells being installed on rooftops around the world and the current designs of solar thermal power plants, with their fields of thousands of expensive mirrors, are both “dead on arrival” because their efficiency doesn’t exceed 20 percent, he said. The latest versions of each can’t economically generate enough energy storage to make them a reliable power source, Ace said.

He believes that his “Solar Trap” will meet the need, with tenfold room to spare.

Email: ggordon@mcclatchydc.com

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