Patent filing claims a solar breakthrough

Greg Gordon / McClatchy Washington Bureau /

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.

There are skeptics. But inventor Ronald Ace said that 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, since 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.

An independent inventor working from his home outside the nation’s capital, Ace said 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 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 up to ninefold — estimates that Ace called conservative.

But that’s just the beginning.

A separate rooftop version, which Ace believes 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.

‘Who knows?’

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.”

Ace said 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.”

Looking back

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.

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 media 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.

In his patent application, Ace wrote that his solar 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 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.”

What’s next

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 said the agency’s solar program is still 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 per day.

Even rotating mirrors, called heliostats, can’t collect solar energy on cloudy days.

There are also the radiation losses from a hot receiver, the geographically variable weather that leaves some regions with less sunshine and the critical need for massive storage.

Ace said that, because his solar traps can collect energy at ultra-high temperatures, the storage issue all but disappears.

While solar power wouldn’t on its face address the long-term need for liquid fuels to replace oil, once a region amassed huge stores of thermal energy, it theoretically could be used to create other forms of energy, including liquid fuels.

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.”