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30 November 2018

Mária Telkes, the Sun Queen

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Mária Telkes fell in love with the power of the Sun when she was still a teenager and read about the future of energy. At that time, when scientists were already beginning to worry about a possible shortage of fuel and other sources of energy, the eldest of the eight children of Aladar and Mária Laban of Telkes would transform herself into the “Sun Queen” by predicting the immense possibilities for solar energy long before the world of solar heated homes and solar cars came true.

With a degree and a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Budapest in hand, in 1924 Telkes (Budapest, 12 December 1900 – 2 December 1995) moved to Cleveland, USA, where she developed her first invention: a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves. Thanks to that achievement, she was recognised in 1934 by The New York Times, along with ten other women from different areas such as film and sports, as one of the eleven most influential women in the US.

Mária Telkes was recognised as one of the eleven most influential women in the US. Source: Wikimedia

After that recognition, Telkes began working in 1940 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) —which at the time was in Boston—, as a researcher in the Solar Energy Conversion Project. Her goal was to design a home heating system that depended on clean solar energy instead of fossil fuels, a plan that had to be postponed due to the outbreak of the Second World War. During that period, the scientist put her scientific mind to work in support of the lives of soldiers, developing a portable water desalination kit that would prevent pilots and sailors stranded in the Pacific Ocean from dying from dehydration. Her patented invention, a folding purifier made with a transparent plastic film, eventually became part of the standard military emergency kits.

The first solar house

The War once again drew attention to a problem that had already been noticed during the Great Recession of 1929: many people could not afford the fossil fuels needed to heat their homes during the winter. When she returned to work, that was one of the factors that inspired Telkes to build the first “solar house” on the American continent.

Constructed in Dover, Massachusetts, it was a building fully functional, with two bedrooms. Looked from the outside it looked like a normal home, although cut in half to create the shape of a wedge, with 18 windows that lined the south side of the second floor. The novelty was that glass and metal panels were hidden behind the windows to trap the Sun’s heat. On the walls there were storage containers insulated with 21 tons of Glauber’s salt (sodium sulphate and decahydrate), a heat storage chemical used in the processes of photography and dyeing.

The house cost $3,000 at that time (around $32,000 today) and was designed by two other women besides Telkes: the sculptor and socialite Amelia Peabody, who financed the project, and the architect Eleanor Raymond.

The Dover sun house. Source: MIT Archives

The Glauber’s salt-based heating system developed by Telkes was able to contain enough heat for at least ten consecutive days of bad weather. She believed that the region where the home was built represented the northern boundary in which her invention could be used, taking into account the 105 clear and sunny days that the Boston area received annually. To verify this, she installed some of her relatives, the Némethy family, to live in the experimental home.

Inspiration for women in science

Telkes’ solar energy system had nothing to do with today’s solar panels, which convert the Sun’s energy into electricity using photovoltaic cells made of semiconductor materials on the roofs of buildings. In the 1950s, that was impossible, as Telkes recognised in the 1951 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “Although considerable research and development work has been carried out with photoelectric cells … not much progress has been achieved in increasing their efficiency as energy converters,” she wrote.

In 1954, Bell Labs would develop the first modern photovoltaic cells, but the solar heating systems of Telkes—which included patents for a radiant energy heat transfer device (1946), a heat storage unit (1951) and an apparatus to store and release heat (1952)—remained the most affordable options for the supply of solar energy in the following decades.

Throughout her life, Mária Telkes collected a dozen awards and a score of patents. In 1952, she became a model of inspiration for women in science, being the first person awarded with the prize in recognition of her work by the Society of Women Engineers.

After seven decades in the US, in 1995 Telkes returned to her native country, Hungary, for the first time. During the visit she died. At the age of almost 95, the energy of the “Sun Queen” had finally run out.

Joana Oliveira


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