Visit to the Solar Institute

The 54-meter high concave mirror

After our hike in the morning, we visited the Institue of Materials Science, or as it is commonly known as “The Sun” Heliocomplex. It looks like a villian’s lair from a James Bond film. The complex was built from 1981 to 1987 when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. It is basically a solar concentrator that is able to take the sun’s rays, and focus them to create extreme (3000 C) heat. Scientists positioned 62 south-facing, giant mirrors (heliostats) which focus the sun’s light. Opposite the field is a concave giant (54m x 47m) mirror consisting of 10,700 mirrors that further focuses light to a 1 meter wide, solar furnace. In this furnace, the light of 10,000 suns creates the extremely high temperatures. It was used as an industrial plant to make alloys for military and space industries. It was only used by the Soviets for a short time and after the collapse of the USSR, it is used occasionally today to make heat-resistant ceramics for fuses.

View of the Heliostat Field from the Top of the Structure

The solar complex is located on a hill 1,050 meters that receives sunshine 270 to 290 days per year. It is just outside of Parkent, a city of 35,000 near the foothills of the Chatkal Mountain Range. The Soviets build housing for the engineers and workers and named the town Kuyosh, Uzbek for sun. It is only about a 90-minute drive from Tashkent and definitely worth the visit.

One of the scientists working at the plant took us on a tour. In the lobby is this magnificent glass artwork of a sun hanging from the ceiling. It must weigh tons and it has a diameter of 10 meters. From there we walked over the field of heliostat mirrors. They set up a miniature version on the side and had a tea kettle hanging over it to demonstrate how the mirrors can generate high temperatures quickly. We also walked up a windy, metal staircase 11 floors to the top of the concave mirror. The views of the mountains, surrounding countryside and solar plant are spectacular. It would be fun to make a movie on the premises. I can see Bond flying away while the plant is exploding and the villain’s plot to destroy the world is ruined. It would also make an interesting field trip for students combined with a walk in the countryside.

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