Sunday, October 2, 2011


Drawing of Catch Me Who Can

        Two evenings ago, in bed with eyes mostly closed, I listened raptly to an interview on the Fox Business Network.

Molten Salt Reactor Tower and Mirror Array

       David Asman, a good reporter, was questioning the CEO of Solar Reserve of Tonopah, Nevada, one of the two “green energy” companies that received $1.1 billion in combined federal loan guarantees this week (Solar Reserves' share totaled $737 million), about his company’s technology, business objectives and financing.

Molten Salt

        The CEO was articulate and passionate and his description of his company's technology was lucid and and vivid.  Solar Reserve will generate and transmit electric power through the medium of “molten salts,” which are super-heated by exposure to massive amounts of reflected sunlight bounced in their direction by dazzling concentric mirror arrays, as shown in the illustration above.  These energized salts then act as highly efficient “heat transfer fluids”, eliminating the need for mechanical “heat exchange units,” simplifying workflow and reducing the costs of producing and providing energy. 

Heat Transfer Fluid

        When the reporter interrogated the CEO about the business aspects of the equation, however, things got a little peculiar and logic and common sense quickly thinned out.  In particular, Asman asked why Solar Reserve was relying on government/taxpayer start-up money, rather than raising operation and product development funds through the traditional media of venture capital and private equity.  The executive replied (incredibly and contrary even to my own personal knowledge and experience based on my life and times in the Internet Bubble of the 1990s) that “this was how innovation was always achieved.”  He then compared  Solar Reserve’s financing mechanisms to earlier models -- specifically to the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States in the mid-19th century.

Diolkos Wagonway, West end, Corinth, from 6th century BC

Image of a ship on Attic black-figure pottery (c. 520 BC). This is the sort of boat that the Diolkos Wagonway may have transported.  Cabinet des Medailes, Bibilotheque National de Paris.

    (N.b., President Obama has also been using the Transcontinental Railroad example a lot lately when discussing "green" technology, except that he tends to call it the “Intercontinental Railroad,” provoking visions of train travel across the great oceans which, as a nervous flyer, I think is a capital, if seemingly impractical, idea. When the president first mentioned this, I thought of other visionary transportation ideas that eventually became real, ranging from 20th century air flight to the the remarkable Diolkos Wagonway, which the ancient Greeks used to transport boats across the Isthmus of Corinth in the 6th century.  The ingenious movement of ships across grooved limestone tracks, achieved unfortunately through slave strength and labor, kept that operation humming for twenty generations.)

Diolkos Wagonway Mooring Location, Corinth, built 6th century BC.

       Given the complicated, corruption-filled history of our Transcontinental Railroad (taking nothing away from the awesome achievement itself, its various human frailty problems notwithstanding), I’m not sure whether Solar Reserve’s CEO should be relying on it for financing precedent, especially in light of the recent Solydra bankruptcy, which appears to be attributable to criminal fraud and lax government oversight, rather than to bad commercial timing and mere fecklessness. As things now stand, Solyndra can only be regarded as an unhelpful event in the green energy quest.

Pacific Rail Road Bond, 1865 

       Another spike, as it were, through the heart of the CEO's “this was how innovation was always achieved” argument is that rail by the 1860s was a well-understood technology descended to us from early 19th century English and Scots engineering pioneers/geniuses.  Comparing railway expansion, which depended on steam engines, metal work and spike driving, to our current, highly speculative solar power efforts seems stretched and opportunistic at best, and at worst simply false.

Golden spike that was donated by the governor of Arizona Territory. It is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion ceremony which took place on May 10, 1869,  but is not the final golden spike.

       Finally, Asman asked the CEO why Solar Reserve was confident that it would actually be able to sign up a sufficient number of paying customers to guarantee taxpayers recovery of their enormous investment?  He replied that the state of Nevada had already designated and granted them an assigned local customer base  future residential and commercial customers who will have no choice about purchasing the products of this as yet unbuilt and unproven company.

Accidental radioactive plume emission, Yucca Flat, Nevada 


        All I can say is that if these “customers” (I think guinea pigs or lab rats might be truer descriptions) receive the utility performance levels I currently do from PECO in Philadelphia (Our Motto: “Service Optional, Payment Mandatory”),  Nevada is going to have some very angry voters/rate-payers unless the plan is actually to give away free electricity and beer for the first decade or so after bringing Solar Reserve online.

        Let’s hope also that they don’t burn a molten salt hole through to China or, worse, though the Yucca Flat, Nevada nuclear waste storage site.

Plowshare Crater formed by underground nuclear tests.  This is the largest of such craters at Yucca Flat, Nevada.

        The interview ended on a highly inconclusive note, yielding one highly skeptical reporter and one energy company executive who was probably happy to finish his day Congressional subpoena-free and finally be rid of pesky questions about what entitles him (and Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law)  to $737 million of your money.

"The Last Spike" by Thomas Hill (1881) depicting the ceremony of the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, UT, on May 10, 1869, joining the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

        For me, however, on a happy note, the interview produced two Definite Benefits, which I would like to share:

        First, I now know where Tonopah is.

        Like many of you, I imagine, I first heard this place mentioned in Lowell George’s timeless song "Willin’", in the amazing refrain:  

        “I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah/Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made/Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed.”

The late, great Lowell George

         Like the California towns Cucamonga and Azuza, the names Lowell listed and sang about sounded fictional at first, but I eventually learned that those were real places and now I know something about Tonopah.

Richard Trevithick's "Steam Circus," Bloomsbury, London, 1808

     Second, the interview sparked me to research railroad history and I learned about "Catch Me Who Can", the first fare-charging train. Built in England in 1808 by the engineer Richard Trevithick, this early engine was charmingly named by a child and mysterious person who will forever be known only as “Mr Giddy’s daughter”.

        Trevithick built Catch Me Who Can in Bloomsbury, London, on the site of the current Chadwick Building (part of the University of London in Gower Street), to publicize his steam railway locomotive expertise and demonstrate to the public that rail travel was faster than horse.

Chadwick Building, site of Richard Trevithick's 1808 Catch Me Who Can "Steam Circus," today. 

        This was Trevithick's fourth engine and the engineer varied the new machine's configuration from previous models by mounting the cylinder vertically, driving a pair of wheels directly with the connecting rods, without use of a flywheel or gearing.  The boiler placement followed Trevithick’s usual return-flue arrangement with an internal firebox. 

        Trevithick promoted the engine as the "star attraction" of his heavily publicized "Steam Circus" and he charged the public one shilling per ride on his small train.  Unfortunately, the weak and brittle cast-iron tracks he used cracked and broke one day causing a derailment.  This proved the venture's undoing.  Public interest, already limited, vanished.

The Collier, aquatint by Robert Havell published in 1814, showing a Matthew Murray steam locomotive (Salamanca) on the Middleton Railway.

       Highly disappointed, Trevithick ceased designing railway locomotives.

        Four years later, however, in 1812,  Matthew Murray of Holbeck built twin cylinder steam locomotives, which the edge-railed, rack-and-pinion Middleton Railway decided to use instead of horses to haul coal wagons from Middleton colliery to Leeds, West Yorkshire, forever changing the logistics game in favor of train and industrial transport. 

        A fitting valedictory for Trevithick and his achievements occurred  several years ago, however, when the Trevithick 200 Charity at the Severn Valley Workshops created and exhibited a working replica of the Catch Me Who Can.

Catch Me Who Can -- it's a fitting challenge for the ages, all ages.

Reconstruction of Catch Me Who Can Engine, 2010

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