In a time when the term sustainable development was completely unknown, Mária Telkes worked on projects which made use of solar energy. Telkes’ research made it possible to build the first solar house in 1948, which earned her the nickname “The Sun Queen.” Greenfo.hu commemorated of Mária Telkes and her great invention.
Márial Telkes was born on 12 December, 1900, in Budapest, as the first child of a wealthy banker. Telkes was a remarkably smart child and later applied to the Pázmány Péter University where she studied chemistry and physics, and earned her PhD in 1924. During her stay in Cleveland at her uncle’s in 1925, the famous George Washington Crile offered her work. Telkes grabbed the opportunity and moved to the United States.
Telkes worked with Crile for 12 years. Her main focus was to find out what kind of energy change cells go through when they die, or get cancer. Telkes’ and Crile’s foundings were published in a book after they concluded their research.
When Telkes became a US citizen in 1937 she started working for Westinghouse Electric, but solar energy became her main focus only from 1939 when she became a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Solar Energy Conversion project. After the US joined the Second World War Telkes was asked to work for the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) which also worked on the Manhattan project. Telkes’ task was to use solar energy to make drinkable water out of salty water, as many soldiers died on sea when they shipwrecked or were attacked because of dehydration. Telkes invented the first solar water distillation device which could make 1 litre drinkable water a day using the salty water of the ocean, and it soon became part of every soldiers’ pack. Telkes was awarded a merit by OSRD for her invention.
Telkes’ most famous invention was the first solar house. The solar energy had to be stored so it could be used on cloudy days, and she solved the problem by storing the solar energy in glauber salt solution (natrium sulfuricium) which has a low melting point (32 °C) but its enthalpy of fusion is high. Her solution can store solar energy for up to ten days.
The first solar house was built in 1948 in Dover, near Boston (it was designed by Eleanor Raymond) and it was tested by the Némethy family, who were relatives of Telkes. By analysing the national meteorological service’s data, Telkes found that in the past 65 days, the Boston region had maximum 9 days without sunshine, so she calculated that 21 tons glauber salt solution is needed for 10 cloudy days.
Unfortunately the winter of 1948 was unusually cold, so the residents were complaining that the house is not warm enough. The next two years were better, but some other form of heating was still necessary. Finally, in 1953 the solution tanks started leaking, and the family used traditional heating from then on. But solar energy from then on was counted as a viable form of heating, and it was in an age when sustainable development was not a term yet. People started building houses with solar panels, but also had traditional heating systems if the number of sunny days were too little in the area.
In 1952 Telkes got the Society of Women Engineers Award, and by that time she was already dubbed “The Sun Queen” in the United States. Telkes didn’t stop working until she turned 78, but she was still in close connection with her colleagues. In 1977 she got the Charles Greeley Abbot Award from the American Solar Energy Society, and she submitted her last invention in 1990, at the age of 90.
Telkes left Hungary at the age of 24 and returned 70 years later to see her home town, Budapest, for one last time. Mária Telkes died in Budapest on 2 December, 1995, at the age of 94. In 2012 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame together with Dénes Gábor physicist.
Photo source:New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons
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