A Maryland inventor’s big energy ideas have promise and big ifs

Courtesy of G G McClathy @ Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

WASHINGTON — While scientists are engaged in an all-out, worldwide scramble to avert the energy and climate change crises, the biggest discoveries could come from a surprising quarter: a modest redwood home on a wooded, 5-acre tract in rural Maryland, where a lone inventor toils day and night.

Ronald Ace lacks hefty academic credentials or any of the billions of dollars that have flowed to other researchers. That hasn’t diminished his zeal in a years-long crusade to accomplish what many scientists deem unattainable.

If the 73-year-old inventor is right, he is on the brink of two historic breakthroughs.

If his novel ideas are validated and take hold, they could change the world.

Those are big ifs.

Ace has applied for patents for two inventions that he believes could speed a dramatic transition to cheap and abundant clean energy, shrink oil consumption to a gurgle and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a smidgen of today’s levels.

His “Solar Trap,” first reported by McClatchy in May 2013, has gained some credence from a former solar engineer at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., who did a confidential review and found “no apparent deficiencies.”

Ace calls his flat-panel trap “a fundamental scientific and environmental discovery” and contends that it could collect sunlight at high enough temperatures to shatter the barriers to a solar age. The device can capture more than 90 percent of the rays that hit it, as much as 10 times more than sun-tracking photovoltaic panels being installed around the globe, he said.

More recently, Ace filed a second patent application, for an invention that he touts as likely able to transform heat into electricity with nearly 100 percent efficiency, 20-fold that of comparable devices in the clean-as-you-can-get field of thermoelectrics.

His claim is especially astounding, because it seems to defy the second law of thermodynamics, a pillar of physics that emanated from the work of French scientist Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot 190 years ago.

But Carnot’s equation dictating heat loss in steam engines has long been interpreted too broadly and doesn’t apply to this device, said Ace, who as a young man worked for more than a decade in the University of Maryland’s molecular physics laboratory.

Andrew Masters, who has spent over 20 years as a U.S. thermoelectrics industry engineer, came to the same conclusion after confidentially reviewing Ace’s patent application and Carnot’s work. Masters, who has built prototypes for world-renowned research institutions, said he “couldn’t find a flaw” in Ace’s concept.

In a letter to Ace last month, Masters said he’s seen hundreds of proposals to harness the waste heat in thermoelectric devices but never one so “conceptually simple and yet potentially game changing.”

Another review came from John Darnell, a recently retired congressional energy adviser who privately analyzed both inventions and concluded, before becoming critically ill, that each would far surpass today’s technology.

Ace’s problem is that neither of his inventions has been validated in customary ways, such as in published, peer-reviewed papers or by constructing prototypes, for which he needs financing. The costly patent applications, filed in 148 countries, are still secret and will remain so for nine months or more. So despite his rare blend of expertise in physics, optics and thermal energy, Ace’s expansive claims are sure to draw skepticism, if not disbelief, from the scientific community.

To grasp the dimensions of what Ace is proposing, consider this:

If the thermoelectric invention works as he hopes, it could offer a way to build affordable electric cars that don’t require recharging and can travel up to 300 miles on two gallons of gas.

If both ideas were to perform as envisioned, the devices could be combined to create power plants that have no moving parts, emit no greenhouse gases, deliver electricity for no more than a third of today’s cost and do so reliably with more than 90 percent efficiency — a feat heretofore considered beyond reach.

Ace’s chances of success hinge not only on the validity of his scientific conclusions, but also on whether investors, governments, institutions or potential patent licensees put money behind his tiny company, Pinnacle Products LLC, which promotes his energy-saving ideas on the website H2OPE.US.

He hopes that the comments from expert reviewers will help attract financing.

Ace retained Nathan Siegel, the former Sandia solar engineer who is now an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Bucknell University, to analyze whether his Solar Trap could overcome the obstacles that for decades have stunted progress in solar energy.

A central issue is long-term energy storage, so that solar plants can reliably provide power at night and during long bouts of cloudy weather.

Battery storage for photovoltaic panels, which directly convert solar energy to electricity, is expensive and generally measured in hours, not days.

Storing solar thermal energy has also been a problem, because scientists haven’t found a way to operate a solar power plant cost-effectively at temperatures above roughly 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher temperatures are needed to ensure that enough energy can be stored in cheap materials, such as sand, to fuel a plant when there’s no sunlight.

Siegel, in conclusions shared with McClatchy, wrote that in 10 years in the solar field he’s never encountered an approach like Ace’s trap, designed to concentrate energy at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit and higher for affordable long-term storage.

Known as “angular selectivity,” the design capitalizes on largely unnoticed properties of sunlight: it arrives in almost perfectly parallel rays, but when heated, radiates at angles spanning 180 degrees, Ace said.

Precisely how the invention works will remain secret until a patent is published. But Ace said he designed it to geometrically ensnare solar rays to prevent diffuse radiation and conduction losses as temperatures hit extremes — a vexing problem for the solar industry.

“In my opinion, this approach is unique” and worthy of more comprehensive analysis, Siegel wrote, noting that the device has the potential to collect solar energy at soaring temperatures without a hugely expensive field of thousands of mirrors like those that concentrate sunlight in federally subsidized solar plants.

Siegel did not extensively analyze Ace’s lower-temperature, rooftop Solar Trap, designed to power homes and businesses by collecting energy at up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to meet much of the world’s energy needs. However, he said Ace’s predictions that it could perform at greater than 90 percent efficiency “are likely accurate.”

Discovery of the second possible breakthrough, in thermoelectrics, grew from Ace’s determination to find a way to convert solar energy into electricity in homes and offices without the roar of a turbine or engine. He also sought an alternative to the back-end design of most power plants, which waste 60 percent or more of the heat generated from burning fossil fuels or from nuclear fuel.

He lit on thermoelectrics, a little-used process in which an electric current is created when heat flows through certain materials, most commonly the substance bismuth telluride. The thermoelectric industry manufactures the devices primarily for exotic purposes, such as producing electricity in spacecraft.

Conventional thinking is that these devices are limited by Carnot’s equation governing unavoidable heat waste. However, when Carnot died in 1832 at age 36, the thermoelectrics phenomenon was little more than a curiosity.

As Ace tossed around ideas, he questioned why the waste heat had to be lost. He scoured a book about Carnot, published in 1897, that traced a debate over his equation between two famed physicists: William Thomson of Scotland, known later in life as Lord Kelvin, and James Prescott Joule of England.

Joule never accepted Carnot’s argument that a heat engine couldn’t be 100 percent efficient and sowed similar doubts in Kelvin. Neither of the two, however, could produce a heat engine that debunked Carnot.

Ace reasoned that Carnot’s theory is ironclad when applied to solids, liquids and gases that expand when heated, as does steam, but that his own thermal-electric design doesn’t expand or contract and “is not a Carnot engine.” Thus, while typical thermal-electric devices waste 95 percent of the heat run through them, Ace said that his can regenerate nearly all of it.

Masters, a vice president of Custom Thermoelectric LLC in Bishopville, Md., wrote Ace:

“I have gone over your heat exchanger concept many times looking for the flaw that collapses its premise. I cannot find it. … This concept could offer system conversion efficiencies far in excess of anything we have seen to date.”

In a phone interview, Masters said that Ace’s concept allows heat to pass through a conductive material not just once, as thermoelectric devices do now, but “over and over again. That’s what makes it unique.”

“I believe he really, really has something,” Masters said.

While Ace has yet to draw a large investor, he hasn’t applied for an Energy Department grant, mainly because federal grant money cannot be used to finance patents.

Nor has he gotten a dime from charitable foundations doling out funds for technology that cuts carbon emissions.

Former Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who quietly championed Ace’s efforts until losing his seat in Congress in 2012, said he suspects some investors have balked because Ace is “somewhat eccentric, and what he’s proposing seems too good to be true,” perhaps prompting them to dismiss him as “loony.”

But Bartlett, a scientist himself, calls Ace a “national treasure.”

Ace said he’s now inviting potential investors to support his work by financing consumer devices he’s invented, fearing that his high-tech energy solutions and planetary-scale talk might frighten people.

“America doesn’t have an energy solution,” Ace said. “The world doesn’t have an energy solution yet. That’s my dream. It has always been my dream, but I scare people because I think too big. Somebody has to. We can’t get there from here thinking small.”

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