Frank Shuman (1862-1918) was an American engineer and solar energy pioneer noted for his work on solar engines, especially those that used solar energy to heat water that would produce steam. Shuman's visionary ideals, most of which were not publicly accepted until sixty years later, were evident when he made the statement, "One thing I feel sure of... is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism."
On August 20, 1897, Shuman demonstrated a solar engine that worked by reflecting solar energy onto one-foot square boxes filled with ether, which has a lower boiling point than water, and containing black pipes on the inside, which in turn powered a toy steam engine. The tiny steam engine operated continuously for over two years on sunny days next to a pond at the Shuman house.
In 1908 Shuman formed the Sun Power Company with the intent to build larger power plants. He developed an improved system using mirrors to reflect solar energy upon collector boxes, increasing heating capacity so much that water could now be used instead of ether. He also developed a low-pressure steam turbine, since most 1910 vintage steam engines were built for steam and not sun-heated water. Shuman's turbine processed energy four times faster than any engine of his day. Shuman then constructed a full-scale steam engine that was powered by low-pressure water, enabling him to patent the entire solar engine system by 1912. Scientific American again featured Shuman in its issues of February 4, 1911 and September 30, 1911.
Shuman built the world’s first solar thermal power station in Meadi, Egypt (1912-1913). Shuman’s plant used parabolic troughs to power a 60-70 horsepower engine that pumped 6,000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to adjacent cotton fields. His system included a number of technological improvements, including absorption plates with dual panes separated by a one-inch air space. Although the outbreak of World War I and the discovery of cheap oil in the 1930s discouraged the advancement of solar energy, Shuman’s vision and basic design were resurrected in the 1970s with a new wave of interest in solar thermal energy.
- Profile in Tacony History, Volume 4,The Life and Influence of Frank Shuman, Historical Society of Tacony