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Solar Engineers


People have worshiped the sun and found ways to channel its energy to improve their lives since early times. As far back as 400 B.C., ancient Greeks designed their homes to take advantage of the sun's warmth and light by having the structures face south to capture more heat in the winter. (This is known as "passive solar energy," an old technology that is still used today.) The Romans later improved on these designs by adding more windows to the south side of homes, and by putting glass panes in the windows, which allowed more heat and light into buildings. The Romans were also the first to use glasshouses to grow plants and seeds. And the Greeks and Romans were among the first to use mirrors to reflect the sun's heat to light fires.

Solar cooking is an ancient practice as well, dating at least as far back as the Essenes, an early sect of Jewish people who used the intense desert sun to bake thin grain wafers. In 1767, Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure created the first solar oven—an insulated, glazed box with a glass-paned cover, which reached temperatures of 190 degrees Fahrenheit. In the 1950s, to aid communities located near deserts, the United Nations and other agencies funded studies of solar cooking to determine if it was a viable way to reduce reliance on plant life for fuel. The studies proved solar cooking was feasible, and so the UN provided further funding for programs to introduce wooden solar cookers to communities in need, such as in locations where firewood was scarce. Despite the benefits of the cookers, however, most groups ended up sticking with their old cooking methods and turned the cookers into firewood.

Solar cooking is back in force today, though. Solar ovens can now reach temperatures as high as 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Many hobbyists, inventors, and designers have fine-tuned the designs of solar ovens over the years, some turning them into marketable products. And the United Nation's solar cooking idea has been resurrected. In 2006, the nonprofit organizations Jewish Watch International, KoZon Foundation, and Solar Cookers International successfully launched a program to bring solar cookers to Darfur refugees. Civil war started in 2003 in Darfur (located in Western Sudan, Africa) and only recently has the violence started to abate. Since 2003, approximately 400,000 people have lost their lives and 3 million have been displaced. As simple an idea as it seems, solar cookers could actually save lives, because women and girls would no longer need to leave the safety of numbers to head off alone in search of firewood.

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