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Solar Furnaces of the Past, Present, and Future

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, humans have been harnessing the power of the sun through the use of solar furnaces. A solar furnace - also known as a solar concentrator - is a device that uses an array of mirrors to redirect and concentrate the sun’s rays onto a small surface area, thus producing extremely high temperatures. 

These devices have numerous uses, including high temperature research and production, electricity generation, and it is even possible to use them to cook food with a much smaller unit. These structures are an excellent way of producing enough heat to power steam turbines in a power plant, thus producing free, clean energy. As with all types of solar energy, the biggest benefit of using solar furnaces lies in their ability to produce heat and energy while producing zero emissions.  

Solar energy might be the way of the future as people start to look for ways to decrease our dependence on burning fossil fuels which release huge amounts of pollution into the atmosphere. As of now, solar concentrators seem to be the best option for producing clean, natural energy on a large scale, which makes them incredibly valuable to the future of humanity. 

The opportunities for providing free, clean energy to developing countries are unlimited, and it may soon be that all modern homes are equipped with solar heating units which could almost completely eliminate the need for “dirty” forms of power such as burning coal or natural gas to produce heat. The technology is still being perfected, but it may be that harnessing the sun’s energy may be one of the main forms of energy production in the future.

How Solar Concentrators Work

The device is quite a simple structure, and probably one that is known to most children. The basic idea behind a solar concentrator is the same as using a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s light onto a concentrated point. Many people may have done this as a child to light leaves or paper on fire - or ants, shame on you! The only difference with a commercial grade device is the amount of heat generated. 

solar concentratorThrough the use of an array of mirrors that track the sun constantly, these structures are able to generate massive amounts of heat - more than enough to melt steel. Most modern structures use very large curved mirrors to focus the sun’s energy onto a very small point which can create temperatures in excess of 6000°F.

The mirrors are controlled with a solar tracker so that they follow the sun constantly, giving them maximum exposure to the sun. Without these trackers, it would be nearly impossible to focus the concentrated beams of light from each mirror onto the focal point.

Solar Furnaces in the Ancient World

Many historians believe that the Greeks were the first to develop this kind of technology and that they used it for many different purposes, including heating and supposedly even for warfare. The Greek word heliocaminus literally translates as solar furnace, although it was actually a sunroom which let in and trapped sunlight inside, thus raising the temperature inside the room. This is essentially how many modern day greenhouses and sunrooms are heated, using the same technology perfected by the ancient Greeks.

There are also historical reports of Archimedes using a type of solar concentrator as a weapon. Apparently, Archimedes and his men used an array of polished metal to reflect and concentrate the sun’s rays onto a focal point. This focal point happened to be on a fleet of Roman ships, which was promptly set alight by the intense heat being redirected at them from the mirrors. While this story has been doubted for its historical accurateness, it is well-known that the Greeks knew all about the power of the sun and were experienced in harnessing the sun’s energy to serve their own purposes. 

Modern Uses for Solar Concentrators

  • Running Steam Turbines for Solar Power Plants
  • Cook Food and Boil Water in a Solar Oven
  • Produce Hydrogen Fuel
  • Perform Scientific Experiments Which Require Extreme Temperatures Without Pollution
  • Reduce the Need to Burn Fossil Fuels
  • Reduce the Need to Cut Down Forests For Firewood

solar furnacesThe largest solar concentrator in the world is at Odeillo in the French Pyrenees, which can generate temperatures up to 6,300°F. This structure can be used for many research experiments, melting metals, as well as creating hydrogen fuel. 

It makes use of 10,000 large mirrors which concentrate the sun’s rays onto an area smaller than a computer screen. 

It has been in use since the 1970’s and is the center for research into the possibilities of using concentrated sunlight to generate energy for a variety of uses, while being completely free of pollution and environmentally friendly.

The possibilities for using these devices in modern life are limitless, although as of yet we haven’t been able to fully realize their potential. 

Smaller solar cookers can be made that utilize the same technology needed to run a solar power plant, except on a much smaller scale. These cookers have the possibility of almost completely eliminating the need to cut down trees for firewood. Slightly larger versions can possibly be used to power and heat homes around the world, thus hopefully undoing some of the damage that deforestation for firewood has led to in some places. The possibilities remain largely untapped for introducing this technology into developing countries that are struggling with deforestation.  

There are other possibilities to reduce or almost completely eliminate pollution if this technology could be properly utilized around the world. Large solar arrays can be used to concentrate the sun’s light onto a point which heats the water to run a steam turbine, which could completely replace the burning of fossil fuels which usually runs our modern steam turbine power plants. While some electric input is necessary to keep large solar arrays tracking the sun, this amount of electricity can easily be offset by the total energy produced with a large mirror array. 

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