Turning Sunshine Into Megawatts

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For decades, Roger Angel has been reaching for the most distant stars in the universe. Now he's reaching for a neighbor, the sun.

Angel is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson where he has pioneered innovative methods for creating huge telescope mirrors that now serve as the centerpieces in some of the world's largest observatories. He wants to use his own expertise, as well as that of his team of engineers and scientists who have done what many thought couldn't be done, to solve a daunting challenge.

Angel wants to capture sunshine that would otherwise fall on the Arizona desert and turn it into electricity. Not to recharge his cell phone or run his car. He wants to power the entire nation.

That may sound like a pipe dream, and maybe he can't pull it off, but Angel is not the kind of guy who can be easily dismissed. We met for the first time more than 20 years ago when Angel was tackling a problem that threatened to cripple the field of astronomy. The only way to look farther into the universe's backyard was to build bigger telescopes. Much bigger.

Lab Creates 'Next Generation Telescope'

But that translated into mega bucks, because bigger mirrors were incredibly expensive to fabricate. So Angel came up with what seems like a simple solution. He built a spinning furnace.

He placed glass in a dish on top. It melted when the furnace heated up, and as the giant contraption began to spin the molten glass flared out toward the edges, forming the parabolic surface of a telescopic mirror.

It sounds simple, but in fact it was a technological triumph.

The huge furnace had to spin at exactly the right speed to achieve the proper shape, and it had to cool down at exactly the right rate to cause the molten glass to harden in the proper shape. Too slow and it could sag. Too fast and it could break.

The lab he supervises is using that technology to create the mirrors for what has been called the "next generation telescope," the 80-foot Giant Magellan Telescope that is to be built at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The international telescope will have seven large mirrors that will act as one.

Paying for Solar Energy

Meanwhile, other scientists have come up with other concepts, leading to a new generation of huge telescopes that have brought the entire universe closer to Earth, so Angel wasn't the only one laboring in that field. But he was certainly one of the most creative.

However, the big hurdle he faces in his drive to tame the sun isn't just technology. It's cost.

"We have to get the cost down to $1 per watt," he said in a telephone interview.

The going price these days for various types of solar energy projects is about $5 per watt, so Angel and his colleagues have their work cut out for them. If the cost can't be slashed, solar energy will remain a bit player, surviving on the government's largess because, as Angel put it, it's so expensive that "nobody builds anything without a subsidy."

The hurdles are huge, but Angel said he and his colleagues have already applied for patents for new technology developed in his lab. He can't reveal everything until the patents are issued later this year, but he did offer a few clues. He's not thinking giant telescopic mirrors. He's thinking window glass.

Standard architectural glass is produced by floating liquid glass on a base of liquid tin, and it comes off flat and polished on both sides.

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