Early work in life sciences

Early in her career at CBI Dr. Telkes developed an electrical camera capable of measuring the magnitude of infrared radiation being experienced by neurons in brain tissues. After concluding her research with Professor G.W. Crile at CBI, Dr. Telkes began her tenure at MIT, where she researched solar technology (Moreau, 2011).

Solar space heating technology

Perhaps the most ambitious project, and arguably her life’s work, was the solar house(s) that she designed heating systems for; based on her development of PCM technology. Dr. Telkes doctoral background in physical chemistry enabled her to determine that sodium sulfate decahydrate, or Glauber salt, was the most suitable material, being both relatively inexpensive and easily available. The technology involved in constructing the heating systems was fairly rudimentary, requiring relatively no highly specialized technologies to construct (Moreau, 2011).

Eleanor Raymond, Architect, and Dr. Mária Telkes (right) at the Dover Solar House in Dover, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Harvard University Graduate School of Design. (BWAF, 2014).

The Dover Sun House, funded by the independently wealthy Amelia Peabody, was the first that Dr. Telkes designed the heating system for while she was tenured at MIT. The design of the heating system is as follows: an eight-hundred square foot pocket of air was sandwiched between a black metallic surface and a double layer of plate glass; all along the rear south-facing side of the house. The air between the black surface and the glass was warmed by the sun’s rays and then moved by fans into an area directly adjacent to metal containers where the Glauber salts were stored. As the temperature around the thermal storage containers rose, the salts would melt, thus a successful transfer and storage of the sun’s energy had taken place. When the air temperature surrounding the thermal storage units decreased the salts would begin to solidify, giving off energy as heat that was then blown by fans into the house to warm the ambient indoor air. Unfortunately, after only three years the heating system failed and the occupants, Dr. Telkes’ cousin and his family, were forced to leave the home (MIT, n.d.).

This diagram demonstrates the basic process of solar distillation, although it is not a model of Dr. Telkes exact design. © HowStuffWorks (Science, n.d.)
The basic process of solar distillation. © HowStuffWorks (Science, n.d.).

Desalination technology and the war effort

Moreau (2011) states that Dr. Telkes’ most significant patent(s) had to do with the desalination technology she developed, specifically the solar still.  At MIT Dr. Telkes was responsible for developing a plastic inflatable solar still, which was widely used by the Navy during WWII, and the most patents were written for this technology, due to the U.S. federal government’s interest in ensuring drinking water for troops during the war (Moreau, 2011) (Samee, Mirza, Majeed, & Ahmad, 2007).

A solar cooker based off of the original one designed by Dr. Telkes. This one is without mirrors and a rocking stand. © Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews (Muthusivagami, Velraj, & Sethumadhavan, 2010)
A solar oven without mirrors or a rocking stand, based on Dr. Telkes’ original design. © Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. (Muthustestivagami, Velraj, & Sethumadhavan, 2010).

Solar cookery

The solar oven invented by Dr. Telkes is remarkably simple in design, requiring no highly specialized materials and is capable of sustaining an internal temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit. The basic design consists of an insulated wooden box with openings covered by a “door” on each end. The area over where the food is placed inside the insulated box is covered with glass and the absorption of the sun’s rays through the glass is assisted by a system of four metallic reflectors strategically placed at sixty degree angles, with triangular mirrors nestled between each reflector on the corners of the box. The oven was designed to be supported by a rocking frame in order to make it easier to manipulate the position of the oven, thus maximizing utilization of available sunlight (Muthusivagami, Velraj, & Sethumadhavan, 2010).

Structurally simple technology capable of great humanitarian and environmental impacts

After studying Dr. Telkes’ inventions, what is clear is that most of her technologies were created not with the aid of highly specialized tools and expensive or rare materials, but with concepts that only a physical chemist could conceptualize. She was a truly gifted and dedicated technologist, whose ability to visualize a sustainable and humane future distinguishes her from her colleagues.

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