Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Lightweight Solar Thermal Panels

Inventor: Freeman A. Ford ’63

Freeman Ford
Freeman Ford. Photograph courtesy of FAFCO.

“Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

When Freeman A. Ford ’63 recounts the founding of his solar energy company FAFCO (the name is a play on his initials), he jokes, “maybe we watched ‘The Graduate’ one too many times.” Back in 1969 Ford and his business partner, Richard Rhodes, did think about plastics—and now FAFCO is the oldest and largest solar thermal panel-making company in the country.

“The key to any entrepreneurial endeavor is finding a need and filling it,” says Ford. He found his opportunity at home—his backyard swimming pool was too cold. At the time pool heaters were expensive to install and operate, and they added a rust color to the water. So Ford thought like an engineer. “Swimming pools use a huge amount of energy, they are a big storage tank, and they have a circulation pump, so they have the three things necessary for a solar thermal system,” he says. “The only thing they don’t have is a collector.”

Ford decided to build solar collectors—out of plastics. “Polymers are easily processed, and the manufacturing of large surface areas using extrusion can be easily automated,” he says. But polymers also have a downside. “It is extremely difficult to get plastics to last for 20 years sitting out in the sun with chlorinated water running through them,” says Ford

Solar thermal panel
SOLAR FLAIR: Freeman Ford turned a bright idea into a company. Photograph courtesy of FAFCO.

“Getting it right was not easy,” he recalls. In 1976 FAFCO had 60,000 collectors fail. “The key was the chemistry and the mechanical structure which would allow the polymers to perform an unnatural act—which is to last indefinitely in the sun,” says Ford. More than 25 patents related to the chemistry and fabrication of solar thermal panels document FAFCO’s success.

Ironically, Ford doesn’t have Thayer class numerals after his name. “I didn’t graduate from Thayer as an engineer,” says Ford, who was an economics major with a passion for engineering and physics. He took Thayer courses and was mentored by Blanchard “Bunny” Pratt ’47 Th’51, a researcher in radio physics at Thayer, and by Fred Schleipman, an equipment-maker in Dartmouth’s physics lab who later became director of Thayer’s machine shop. “I was forever building electronics at Thayer,” says Ford.

Today the company he built on plastics and electronics has sold more than 1.75 million solar heating systems, and its product line now includes pool and domestic hot water systems. In 2006 Ford was inducted into a cool international honor society created by Congress: the Solar Hall of Fame.

—Lee Michaelides

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Categories: Inventions

Tags: energy

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