WASHINGTON - Ronald Ace says that his flat-panel "Solar Traps," which could be 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." The transformation also could blunt global warming.
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.
'OUTSIDE THE BOX'
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.
"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 up to ninefold - estimates that Ace called conservative.
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.
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."
ALL ABOUT EFFICIENCY
A major stumbling block for solar thermal energy devices invented to date has been that, as temperatures rise, increasing amounts of energy escape, or radiate 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."