In a U.S. patent application, a little-known Maryland inventor claims a stunning solar energy breakthrough that promises to end the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels at a fraction of the current cost — a transformation that also could blunt global warming.
Inventor Ronald Ace said his flat-panel “solar traps,” which can be mounted on rooftops or used in electric power plants, will shatter decades-old scientific and technological barriers that have stymied efforts to make solar energy a cheap, clean and reliable alternative.
“This is a fundamental scientific and environmental discovery,” Ace said. “This invention can meet about 92 percent of the world’s energy needs.”
His claimed discoveries, which exist only on paper so far, would represent such a leap forward that they are sure to draw deep skepticism from solar energy experts. But a recently retired congressional energy adviser, who has reviewed the invention’s still-secret design, said it’s “a no-brainer” that the device would vastly outperform all other known solar technology.
Ace said he is arranging for a national energy laboratory to review his calculations and that his own crude prototypes already have demonstrated that the basic physics for the invention work.
If the trap even comes close to meeting his futuristic vision, its impact could be breathtaking: It could reorder the world’s energy landscape, end the global economic drag of soaring energy costs, and eventually curb greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for climate change.
That all might sound rather rosy, because the previously undisclosed invention has yet to be constructed and fully tested. But John Darnell, a scientist and the former congressional aide who has monitored Ace’s dogged research for more than three years and has reviewed his complex calculations, has no doubts.
“Anybody who is skilled in the art and understands what he’s proposing is going to have this dumbfounding reaction: ‘Oh, well it’s obvious it’ll work,’” said Darnell, a biochemist with an extensive background in thermodynamics.
“Ron has turned conventional wisdom about solar on its head,” he said. “He thinks outside the box.”
An independent inventor working from his home outside the nation’s capital, Ace said that his filing culminated years of research into ways to efficiently capture and store solar energy.
In recent interviews and redacted excerpts from his patent application, he said that his invention can be used to retrofit conventional nuclear- or fossil fuel-fired power plants to produce electricity at about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. That alone would be a staggering advance, slashing the average wholesale cost of power by two-thirds and the cost of solar energy by as much as ninefold — estimates that Ace called conservative.
But that’s just the beginning.
A separate rooftop version, which Ace said ultimately will power most homes and businesses, would initially provide cheap heating and hot water. Soon, he said, equipment for those traps will be able to convert solar energy to electricity, air conditioning and, if enough panels are installed, to produce excess energy to sell to utility companies. Consumers will be able to reap enough savings on their utility bills to recover their costs within two to four years, a performance that far surpasses photovoltaic solar panels that are gaining a market toehold worldwide, Ace said.
His traps also could for the first time provide a viable way to operate power plants by collecting energy above 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit — the heat needed to drive the turbines that generate electricity. Such high-temperature plants would significantly top the efficiency of conventional nuclear-, coal- and gas-powered plants, further reducing costs, he said.
Higher-temperature collection in all of these uses, he said, would overcome one of the tallest barriers to a solar age: the inability to develop cheap, long-term storage of thermal energy from the sun. Ace said that his invention would allow weeks of high-temperature storage at one-tenth to one-hundredth of the current cost, meaning that solar power systems could generate electricity uninterrupted during lengthy stints of cloudy weather.
His traps will be so efficient that they can be used even in less sunny regions, he said.
Until Ace shares his secrets, produces a working prototype, licenses a major project or wins the blessing of a peer review panel, he may get little credence.
“There are few cases in history where people come up with something which is totally unexpected,” said Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a former head of the U.S. Energy Department’s Sunshot solar program, tasked to spur solar energy innovation. “Who knows? It may actually be correct. But I’m an experimentalist. And until it’s proven, I don’t believe it.”
If Ace is making history, his invention may stand alongside the introduction of the steam engine 300 years ago that set the stage for the Industrial Revolution.
Ace said that confidentiality agreements are being signed so that solar experts at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., can review his invention. He already has confided details to former President Jimmy Carter, who created the Energy Department in 1977 with a mission of sponsoring “transformative science and technology solutions.” Former U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who was Darnell’s boss and has championed Ace’s search for investors, has called the inventor “a genius.”
A major stumbling block for solar thermal energy devices invented to date has been that, as temperatures rise, increasing amounts of energy escapes, or radiates away, from their receivers. At 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, currently designed receivers would radiate as much energy as they collect, sinking their efficiency to zero, solar experts say.
In his patent application, Ace wrote that his invention amounts to “a high-temperature blackbody absorber” that is “similar in some ways to an astronomical black hole.”
The key, he said, is his trap’s ability to absorb nearly 100 percent of the sunshine that hits it, while allowing only a tiny percentage of energy to escape, even at ultra-high temperatures.
Such a feat would astound many solar experts, who have had little success combating radiation losses in pilot solar plants, which use fields of mirrors to redirect and concentrate sunlight on common receivers.
Ace said that he contacted five national laboratories during his research, floating his interpretations of physics laws or double-checking his methodology on complex math equations without divulging his invention.
Darnell, who is barred by a confidentiality agreement from revealing its details, said that even if the solar trap “comes up way short, it’s going to be way ahead of the competition.”
Ace is putting his reputation on the line in touting multiple scientific breakthroughs that he says can harness the sun’s diffuse rays into energy that is cheap and reliable enough to compete with other fuel sources. If so, he has conquered a challenge whose answers have eluded scientists and engineers around the world.
There are obstacles everywhere, enough so that a senior Energy Department official told McClatchy last year that the agency’s solar program is in its infancy despite billions of dollars in expenditures over more than 35 years.
For starters, the energy in sunshine is dilute, unlike the highly concentrated energy in oil or coal, and so it takes a lot of area to absorb solar energy.
Collecting those rays is tricky, because the Earth’s rotation makes it difficult to design mirrors or receivers that can track sunlight for more than a few hours a day.
Even rotating mirrors, called heliostats, can’t collect solar energy on cloudy days.
There also are the radiation losses from a hot receiver, the geographically variable weather that leaves some regions with less sunshine and the crucial need for massive storage.
The currently preferred storage method is to transfer solar energy to tanks of molten salt. So far, that’s proved too expensive, accounting for 25 percent of a power plant’s cost just to store eight to 12 hours of energy, only a few hours for higher-temperature plants. As a result, pilot plants built in the sunny Southwest under Sandia’s auspices require backup from conventional fuels and wouldn’t be viable without federal subsidies. To make matters worse, fierce competition from plants powered by cheap, Chinese-made photovoltaic panels have undercut the financial models behind solar thermal plants, leading to bankruptcies and canceled plans.
Ace said that, because his solar traps can collect energy at ultra-high temperatures, the storage issue all but disappears. The energy can be stored for weeks in silicon dioxide (pure sand) or other cheap materials and extracted via heat exchangers as needed, he said, meaning that reliable solar power plants could be built almost anywhere, although it would be more expensive in cloudy regions.
As for finding the space to mount enough solar traps atop homes and businesses, Ace estimated that there are more than 7,000 square miles of residential and commercial rooftops in the United States.
A solar-energy breakthrough of the magnitude that Ace describes would be momentous not only for its scientific merit but for its timing, amid global-warming concerns and projections of a looming worldwide energy crisis, despite the U.S. oil and gas revival. The world population is projected to surge past 8.5 billion people in the next 20 years, even as energy companies drill for oil in increasingly harsh conditions.
An all-out shift to solar energy, a process that would take decades even on a fast track, could avert economic tumult and potential military conflict if affordable fossil fuels became scarcer.
Solar power wouldn’t on its face address the long-term need for liquid fuels to replace oil, but Ace said that once a region amassed huge stores of thermal energy, it could be used to create other forms of energy, including liquid fuels. For example, Sandia researchers developed a way to use high-temperature solar energy to break down carbon dioxide from the air into carbon monoxide, a key building block in making synthetic hydrocarbons whose greenhouse gas emissions would be carbon-neutral.
Ramesh, the former Energy Department Sunshot chief, met with Ace in May 2012, weeks before leaving his post to return to a faculty job at the University of California, Berkeley.
In a phone interview, Ramesh called the inventor “a very smart guy” who appears to have a solid knowledge of physics, thermal energy and optics. He said that Ace touted his solar trap and described what would be “a fundamental discovery,” but he did not confide details.
“I need to see data, and he needs money to show the data,” Ramesh said, describing the chicken-and-egg dilemmas that often confront inventors. “You have to prove out everything before somebody puts in money.”
Since 2010, the Energy Department has approved nearly $13 billion in grants and loans for cutting-edge research on solar power. But Ace and his company, Pinnacle Products LLC, have yet to apply for or receive a nickel of it. For one reason, he said, he didn’t feel comfortable revealing his technology in a grant application before he obtained protection by applying for a patent.
Ace also said that an Energy Department grant wouldn’t help bankroll his first priority, which is to raise $1.8 million to seek and maintain patents in 60 countries to protect U.S. economic interests in his technology. Federal rules bar using grant money to pay for foreign patent applications.
Searching for investors who have “passion, pesos and patriotism,” Ace has recently picked up modest new investments from several engineers and scientists, he said.
For Ace, a tenacious man who has worked marathon hours, it has often been a lonely quest.
He said he has been motivated by a desire to avoid an energy disaster and to help reduce the national debt. He envisions licensing his technology to the Defense Department so military bases could use the traps to generate cheap power and even profit by selling low-cost excess energy to neighboring communities or host countries.
Darnell, for one, gushes with pride to have been able to act as a sounding board.
He said Ace “has laid out a road map for how the world could, in fact, over a period of time, convert to a truly sustainable, truly clean, truly benign technology that essentially could bring prosperity everywhere in the world the sun shines.”