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Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator, 1869. (source)

The history of renewable energy is fascinating. We posted a while back about early efforts to harness the power of waves. You may also be interested to learn more about the 19th century work of Mouchot and Ericsson, early pioneers of solar thermal concentrators (CSP solar thermal power).


Early schematics of Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator.

Augustin Mouchot taught secondary school mathematics from 1852-1871, during which time he embarked on a series of experiments in the conversion of solar energy into useful work. His proof-of-concept designs were so successful that he obtained support from the French government to pursue the research full-time. His work was inspired and informed by that of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (who had constructed the first successful solar oven in 1767) and Claude Pouillet (who invented the Pyrheliometer in 1838).


Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, 1878. (source)

Mouchot worked on his most ambitious device in the sunny conditions of French Algeria and brought it back for demonstration at the Universal Exhibition in Paris of 1878. There he won the Gold Medal, impressing the judges with the production of ice from the power of the sun.

Unfortunately, the falling price of coal, driven by efficiencies of transport and free trade agreements with Britain, meant that Mouchot’s work would soon be deemed unnecessary and his funding was cut soon after his triumph at the Universal Exhibition.


Abel Pifre and his solar powered printing press. Image from Scientific American, May 1882. (source)

His assistant, Abel Pifre, would continue his work, however, and demonstrated a solar powered printing press in the Jardin des Tuileries in 1882. Despite cloudy conditions that day, the machine printed 500 copies per hour of Le Journal du Soleil, a newspaper written specially for the demonstration.


John Ericsson’s Solar Engines. (left image source, right image source)

Meanwhile, the great inventor and engineer John Ericsson had decided to devote the last years of his life to similar pursuits. His work on solar engines spanned the 1870s and 1880s. Instead of relying on steam, he utilized his version of the heat engine, a device that would prove very commercially successful when powered with more conventional fuel sources such as gas.

From Paul Collins’ 2002 essay The Beautiful Possibility:

“You will probably be surprised when I say that the sun-motor is nearer perfection than the steam-engine,” [Ericsson] wrote one friend, “but until coal mines are exhausted its value will not be fully acknowledged.” He calculated that solar power cost about ten times as much as coal, so that until coal began to run out, solar power would not be economically feasible. But this, to him, was not a sign of failure—there was no question that fossil fuels would indeed run out someday.

The great engineer maintained an unshakeable belief in the future of solar power to his last breath; he had set up a large engine in his backyard and was still perfecting it when he collapsed in early 1889. Though his doctor made him rest, Ericsson could not sleep at night: he complained that he could not stop thinking about his work yet to be done.

Both Mouchot and Ericsson were driven by the prescient understanding that access to coal, the predominant fossil fuel of the time, would eventually run out. And while, new discoveries of petroleum and natural gas have extended our inexpensive access to energy, we are finally now, 140 years later, reaching a time when their predictions are coming true. For the wisdom behind the premise is still as valid today as it was then—nothing that is finite can last forever. These inventors were so far ahead of their time, it is almost scary.

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Sun Drops

Marcin Sikora, Rozalia Kostka, Marco Tarzia, and Andrzej Chorazyczewski
Designed for Site #2 in Abu Dhabi, between Saadiyat Island and Yas Island.


Design Submission for the 2010 Land Art Generator Initiative Design Competition

Artist’s descriptive text:
The sea and the desert: two gigantic forces in coexistence. Imaging the desert, first thing we see is a cold morning, when the sun starts its journey through the skyline and the sand is yet covered in the cold of the night. This is a very special time, when water in the form of the dewdrops begins to appear on the leaves of plants.

Sun Drops makes reference to this moment when water comes into being at the desert. Oval-shaped forms made of glass, placed directly on the sand, resemble dewdrops at daybreak. The character of the whole composition is strengthened by the nearness of the sea. Irregularly located installations, illuminated from the inside at night, recall the picture of pure diamonds, sparkling at night. From the bird’s eye view they bring to mind water that has just been spilled on the sand, still not soaked into the ground.

During the daytime, the Sun Drops change their character into glass domes, where hidden inside photovoltaic installations produce electricity. Glass forms, of which whole sphere is built, behaves like lenses, agglomerating and focusing light on the solar cells positioned inside. Produced energy is mostly transferred directly to the grid, but some is partially stored, so that it can be used to give power supply to illuminate the spheres at night.

low-res version PDF of submitted boards

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Lisa Moffitt
Designed for Site #2 in Abu Dhabi, between Saadiyat Island and Yas Island.


Design Submission for the 2010 Land Art Generator Initiative Design Competition

Artist’s descriptive text:
Clouds, Lattices & Plumes capitalizes on the abundance of two natural resources available on the desert coastal site: sunlight and saltwater. The primary strategy for limiting the environmental footprint of the project is to treat these clean site resources (sun, clouds, water) as the dominant building materials of the project.

All elements on site follow radial geometries that overlap and converge, creating central nodes and perimeter moirés. A series of heliotropic, sun tracking mirrors, organized in radial arrays, focus light on solar power towers, generating roughly 10 megawatts of electricity for the local grid. The heliotropic mirrors, sun and cloud tracers, mechanically follow the trajectory of the sun, and are visible aerially from viewing platforms at site nodes.

A series of pools occur where the radial geometries overlap. Small-scale desalination pavilions at these pools generate clean water and highly saline water. Clean water is pumped to wading pools for recreational use on site. Saline water is pumped to salt ponds, where halophytic organisms thrive, creating shifting plume paintings in the landscape. Salt crystals collect and grow on sculptural towers set in the saline ponds.

Clean electricity is produced through Concentrating Solar Power Towers, which use heliostatic (sun-tracking) mirrors to focus light onto a thermal receiver placed on a power tower. This focused heat boils water and produces steam, which powers a standard turbine and generator in order to produce electricity that is fed into the local grid.

Four radial arrays of heliostat mirrors focus light on solar power towers. Each array consists of roughly 1500 3 meter diameter heliostats, totally 10,600 m2 of mirrored surface. These tracking mirrors focus light onto their respective 200 foot tall towers (wind tower components can be repurposed for this use), producing roughly 2.5 megawatts of electricity per solar array; approximate 10 megawatts of electricity is produced on site. The towers double as gnomens in a giant sundial, casting shifting shadows across the site. At the base of each tower, turbines and generators are housed in a lightweight production shed.

Plumes: Salt Ponds, Desalination Hubs & Wading Pools – Salt water is in abundance in Abu Dhabi; fresh water is not. Typically, desalination is an energy intensive process with high ecological tolls: the highly saline byproduct of production is recirculated at the point source, increasing the salinity of the local water source and negatively impacting the local marine ecology.

Clouds, Lattices and Plumes uses a low-energy, scalable method of water desalination to produce clean water for on-site recreation, while also retaining the saline water on site as striking visual elements in the landscape, rather than discharging it back at point source.

Using the Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) process , seawater is pumped to the desalination pavilion, filtered for large particles, pumped with a high pressure pump through membrane filters, and circulated into holding tanks. Each membrane filter (10cm diameter x 80 cm long) can process 1000 liters of water/day. 1000 liters of processing requires roughly 3.7 kwh of energy, provided through on-site electricity production.

Clean water is pumped into adjacent wading pools. Highly saline discharge is pumped into adjacent salt ponds. The highly saline water collects halophytic organisms that transform the saline water into pools of saturated, shifting plume paintings.

The pavilions are open-air in order to encourage visitor observation.

Lattices : Sculptural Salt Towers – Sodium chloride (NaCl) is in abundance in seawater. Due to it’s high ionic bonding and crystalline structure, salt collects and grows readily. A series of materials were tested for their ability to facilitate / encourage salt growth, and while the crystal structure varied by material, NaCl readily grew on any medium, forming cloud-like aggregations.

Steel structures with wool felt inlays, located in the salt ponds according to the radial geometries of the site, provide infrastructure to encourage salt crystal growth, a spectacle that shifts over time as salt collects and overtakes the salt towers.

low-res version PDF of submitted boards

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Khoury Levit Fong
Robert Levit, Rodolphe el-Khoury, James Dixon, Lindsay Hochman, Khalid al Nasser, Melissa Lui
Designed for Site #2 in Abu Dhabi, between Saadiyat Island and Yas Island.


Design Submission for the 2010 Land Art Generator Initiative Design Competition

Artist’s descriptive text:
A constructed dunescape…with southern slopes of mirror-bright polished stone, lifts towards the sun. Concave eye-shaped surfaces reflect light upon pipelines, superheating their liquid contents and powering electricity generating steam turbines housed beneath their crests.

A rich pattern of mirrored eyes luminous with the sun by day and shifting patterns of LEDs by night . . . the dunescape blinks.

Solar Dunes adapts the machinery of solar powered steam generated electricity. But, here the machinic array of mirror-like surfaces is bound up in a topographical form: the dunescape.

The machine does not sit in nature as it once did (factories in the landscape), but neither does nature camouflage the machine and its detritus. Here the dunes look natural but are a work of geometry and artifice. And the polished mirrors, the piping and its supports interpose within the forms of the dunescape an element of even more obvious artifice. Taken together, the dunes and mirrors create a challenging equivocation between the natural and the artificial. The eye-like surfaces blinking in the dunescape uncannily animate the inanimate –the prosthetic quality of machinery that reproduces qualities of the body is now writ into the field of a technical landscape. The ecologically sound solar production of electrical energy is bound up in a newly conceived esthetic of landscape.

These dunes are built and stabilized: an open mat of concrete, mostly below the surface, holds their form and patterns their surface. Concrete ribs and planks form the substrate for the parabolic curvature of the mirrored surfaces. These may be of polished stone or metal as budget and performance criteria permit. The dunes rise and subside, making for a richly varied array of forms, both to look at and to occupy. Under several of the larger dunes –over ten meters in height—powerful electrical turbines will be housed. Pipes onto which the mirror surfaces reflect intense light, will carry superheated liquid to drive the electricity-generating turbines.

The solar dunescape –artificially patterned, scintillating day and night, is designed to be apprehended at different speeds, at different scales and in different media. Experienced on foot it is an immersive landscape between highway and water. The dunes, large in scale, are a park. From the northern edge, by the water, they hide their technical apparatus, and appear as somewhat excessively regular sand dune landscape. Seen from a speeding car, the patterned surfaces come into view stretched along the horizon at the speed of a blink. From an airplane, the pattern of the dunes takes on an iconic character: a logo-in-the-land identified with ecological solarpower generation and the esthetic re-conception of an industrial landscape. On a computer screen the site is patterned at a scale that is visible on Google Earth and establishes itself as logo-scape linked to the innovative synthesis of sustainable power generation and art to be established here in the UAE.

By night Solar Dunes turns into an informational ornament. The trajectory of air travel between Abu Dhabi and international destinations is mapped as trailing light patterns upon the mirrors of the dunes. LEDs embedded at the foot of each mirror brighten and dim set by the arrivals and departures from Abu Dhabi International Airport. This pattern of light-play treats information as ornament. Animated patterns are generated by the cosmopolitan globalized circumstances of life in Abu Dhabi. The pattern of lights of this energy landscape may be, in turn, used as a logo in a variety of sites: as a luminous floor pattern of the Abu Dhabi airport ticket concourse, as a screen ornament app in iPhone, as a splash screen for Emirates airlines, and elsewhere. . . This image of the new electrical landscape will be an emblem of a convergence: between sustainable energy production and environmental art.

Solar Dunes uses a conventional energy generating strategy in an unusual manner. Mirrored arrays have been used in numerous locations to melt salt, which is then pumped to steam turbines where it vaporizes the water used to drive the turbine. In our proposal we have considered two possibilities. First, a lower tech use of polished stone and a heated liquid such as glycol to produce steam. Such materials require less maintenance and are more compatible with the use of Solar Dunes as a park. The second option is that the mirrors be more conventionally machined metal mirrors—producing a maximum of heat and thus electrical power.

low-res version PDF of submitted boards

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