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A solar-powered printing press, made around 1894, which was based on Augustin Mouchot's solar engine, patented in 1861. The illustration was published in France's Le Petit Inventeur, at about 1927. Universal History Archive / Getty Images
A solar-powered printing press, made around 1894, which was based on Augustin Mouchot's solar engine, patented in 1861. The illustration was published in France's Le Petit Inventeur, at about 1927. Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Augustin Mouchot, the solar pioneer whose moment in the sun came too soon

Augustin Mouchot was ahead of his time - too much so for his own good. But now, a century and a half later, his sun engine is coming to belated fruition in the UAE desert

If ever a man walked in the sunshine ahead of his time, it was Augustin Mouchot.

Born in April 1825 in the small French town of Semur-en-Auxois, a little over 200 kilometres southeast of Paris, he seemed set to live an unremarkable life as a maths teacher.

But Mouchot was destined for brighter things. Driven by a conviction that the coal that was powering Europe's industrial revolution could not last for ever, he became intrigued with the realisation that, every time the sun shone, free energy was everywhere. After all, coal, wood, oil and gas were little more than stored forms of solar energy. All that was necessary, reasoned Mouchot, was to develop a way of harnessing that energy at source.

In 1866, after six years of work, he produced the world's first parabolic solar collector. The principle was simple. The sun's rays were focused by a parabolic array of mirrors on a metal tube, or boiler, containing water. The water boiled and the resulting steam was used to drive a steam engine.

Today, that technique has been refined, but not fundamentally altered; the sun's rays are focused on tubes, filled with efficient heat-transfer fluids, which in turn pass through boilers where water is heated for steam, used to drive electricity-generating turbines.

It has a name - concentrated solar power (CSP) - that owes nothing to the man who developed it, but to say that Mouchot's sun engine was the forerunner of the technology now in evidence at Shams 1 and other CSP sites around the world is to underestimate its significance.

Mouchot's device, developed 15 years before the dawn of commercial electricity generation, was used in demonstrations to power pumps, printing presses and even ice-making machines. But it employed exactly the same principles, and with brilliant efficiency, as CSP today.

In the words of the US-based Land Art Generator Initiative, which campaigns for aesthetically pleasing renewable-energy solutions, Mouchot was so far ahead of his time it was "almost scary".

He developed bigger and better machines and, in 1869, published what should have been the world-changing book, Solar Heat and its Industrial Uses - a virtual handbook for anyone interested in developing solar power, then or now.

Patronised by Napoleon III, he further developed his simple but brilliant invention in the sunshine of Algeria, recently colonised by France.

He returned to Paris in 1878, where his genius was revealed to the world at the Universal Exhibition.

He and his new technology seemed certain to enjoy their day in the sun, but it was not to be. Politics, in the form of a new free-trade agreement between France and Britain, and the economies of transport brought about by revolutions in shipping and railways, saw coal prices fall and Mouchot's support was withdrawn.

Soon, this fossil fuel would be followed by another, oil, and the further development of solar power, now seen as unnecessary, would be put on the back burner.

Others tried to follow in his footsteps. In 1913 Frank Shuman, an American inventor, set up his Number One Sun Engine to irrigate farmland in Maadi, outside Cairo in Egypt.

The sun's rays were captured in five mirror-lined parabolic troughs - identical in profile to the collectors at Shams 1 - which concentrated the heat on five boilers, creating enough steam to pump up to 23,000 litres of water a minute.

The system worked perfectly - but was abandoned at the outbreak of the First World War, by the end of which the modern world was hopelessly hooked on oil.

In 1907 Mouchot, then 82, was tracked down in Paris by a reporter from the The New York Times, who reported that the man who had pioneered the practical application of solar power had seen his wife incarcerated in an insane asylum and was "alone in the world and reduced to beggary after a long life of labour".

"Yesterday," the paper reported on July 28, Mouchot "was rudely awakened from his studies by the sheriff, who came to seize the furniture that his creditors' claims might be satisfied".

He was allowed to keep only his books and "a few sticks" of furniture. He would live on, in poverty, for another five years, dying in 1912, alone and forgotten, at the age of 91.

Mouchot, the man who acted more than 150 years ago to harness the free energy of the sun because he foresaw the end of one fossil fuel, would surely have appreciated the twist that it is only the impending loss of another that has finally seen his genius given full rein, in a desert 120km southwest of Abu Dhabi city.

April 7 will mark the 188th anniversary of Mouchot's birth, and there could be no finer celebration than Shams 1, the world's largest CSP generating station. His day has finally come - too late for him, but not, perhaps, for the Earth and its dwindling resources.

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