Anil K. Rajvanshi
Anil K. Rajvanshi

Dr. Erich Farber, a U.S.-based solar energy pioneer, died on 9th April, 2017. He was nearly 96 years’ old and died of complications arising from a fall. He was an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at University of Florida, Gainesville. I worked with him for 7 years from 1974-1981, first as his graduate student (got my Ph.D. under him) and then as his colleague in the Training in Alternative Energy Technologies (TAET) Center, at UF. In 1981 I came back to India to run my own NGO.

Dr. Farber did pioneering work in many fields. He was the inventor of pool boiling curve which is the bedrock of two-phase flow in heat transfer. For this, he received ASME’s major award – the Worcester Reed Warner Medal. He made major contributions to the design of Saturn 5 rocket that sent the man to the moon and in solar energy; he pioneered the development of various technologies for conversion of solar thermal into various forms but mostly in the development of solar refrigeration and air-conditioning and in design of solar powered Sterling engines. He was a fellow of ASME and the charter member of Solar Hall of Fame and received many awards from various universities and solar energy societies around the world.

He was born in Austria in 1921 and came to U.S. during the second world war. He joined U.S. army and was sent to Europe to fight the Nazis. For his valor he earned Silver Star and Purple Heart as decorations.

He did his undergraduate in mechanical engineering from University of Missouri and his Ph.D. in 1949 from University of Iowa. After briefly teaching at University of Wisconsin, he joined the faculty of mechanical engineering at University of Florida (UF) in 1954 and retired in 1990.

He authored more than 400 publications and coauthored 6 books including major chapters on solar energy in Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers. In 1960s and 70s he set up at UF one of the largest solar energy program in any U.S. university. At the height of the program there were close to 25 graduate students and faculty working under him in almost every area of solar thermal energy utilization.

I came to UF to work in solar energy field funded by Government of India (GOI) scholarship. Most of the GOI scholars went to prestigious universities like MIT, Caltech, UC Berkley etc. but I chose UF because of Farber and never regretted my decision.

He was at that time a leading light in solar energy utilization especially for solar thermal application in power generation and refrigeration and had pioneered many technologies in these areas. Thus he set up the solar house in late 1960s which was completely air conditioned by solar energy. The 3 ton ammonia-water refrigeration system for cooling the house was for many years the largest such facility anywhere in the world. Similarly his work in developing an electric car in 1971 was a pioneering effort as was his work on developing 1-2 H.P. solar sterling engines.

He was an engineers’ engineer with wonderful ability to work with his hands, go to the heart of a problem and apply basic engineering fundamentals to finding out the solution. They do not make such professors.

His group in UF was major contributors to the testing standards for solar water heating systems. The group was responsible in developing ASHRAE standards that are used world over for solar collectors testing. Thus every solar collector manufacturing company in US would test their collectors at UF.

The last time I met him was in May 2014 when I had gone to UF to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award. He was invited to the Department of Mechanical Engineering and was sitting in Dr. David Hahn’s office when he was pleasantly surprised to see me. We spent a lovely one hour talking about old times and attached is the photo of all three of us. Dr. David Hahn, who is the chairman of the department, told me that Dr. Farber visited him once a month.

Dr. Farber looked frail, little bent over (after all he was 93 years’ old at that time), was very hard of hearing and yet sharp as ever and still drove his car! He was quite insistent that he would leave me and my wife Nandini wherever we wanted to go, but I did not have the heart to tell him that I would not like to be driven by a 93-year-old person who was carrying a physically challenged decal from the veterans’ hospital on his car. The high speed with which he backed his car from the parking lot showed that he was not completely in control of the vehicle.

Any time I returned to Gainesville after my departure in 1981, I always made it a point to see him and his lovely wife Ellen. They would always take me out for dinner and we exchanged notes on our families. He was like my family in Gainesville. However, as he aged the way he drove was always a subject of discussion between him and Mrs. Farber. Dr. Farber would get angry and ask her “Are you driving or am I?”

I met Mrs. Farber for the first time sometime in 1975 during a mechanical engineering picnic. At that time I and Nandini were dating and I had taken her for the picnic. Mrs. Farber got an immediate liking for her and next day Dr. Farber came to my office and told me that my choice is excellent. Ellen is a very distinguished and beautiful lady and I have never heard her say a single word against anybody. She is also a very soft spoken person.

His mathematical knowledge was weak, but he more than made up for it by his practical approach. I remember very vividly how he helped me solve a tricky problem in internal reflections. For my Ph.D. research I was trying to develop transmittance profiles of different dye solutions. This was during the days when fancy spectrophotometers had not been developed. I was using WWII vintage Beckman Spectrophotometer which was humongous and to get the spectra of the dyes, I had to change the light source and detectors continuously.

During the course of my experiments I found out that the output beam intensity from the dye cell for certain wavelengths was greater than the input signal. I did and redid my experiments dozens of time taking all precautions, but still the results were the same. The mechanical engineering professor in whose lab I was doing the experiment kept on telling me that there is something wrong in my experiments. So in desperation I went to Dr. Farber and he immediately said that this is because of internal reflections inside the cell for those wavelengths. I did the theoretical calculations and they matched my experimental results exactly !

Similarly he told me of another instance where the volume of a complicated geometry of Saturn 5 rocket cone had to be found out. Quite a number of his colleagues at UF mechanical engineering department developed sophisticated computer models (and in those days getting a FORTRAN program to run in huge computers was a nightmare) and yet even after 3-4 months he did not get an answer. So he asked a master craftsman to make him a wooden model of the rocket engine which he dipped in a bucket of water and from its displacement found the volume!

There were hundreds of such examples that I can narrate about his technical virtuosity. He was very much in the Lord Rutherford mould who believed in doing excellent experimental work rather than modeling or theoretical research. Rutherford and his Cavendish lab in University of Cambridge produced many Nobel Laureates based on their experimental work.

His pioneering work on Saturn 5 rocket design helped man go to the moon. Thus his concept of developing “critical mass” for mixing liquid oxygen and hydrogen was one of the important contributions to Saturn 5 success and space program. He showed through very sophisticated experimental work that only a “critical mass” of these fluids can be mixed safely. Above that amount, surface charge in the mixing liquids led to explosion of the fuel. With a child’s glee he once explained to me how he analyzed reams of thermal data collected from the explosions to develop the critical mass concept. He showed an 8 mm film (45 minutes duration) of his work in developing the critical mass concept for Saturn 5 rocket design. That lecture and the film for me were like sitting through the history of rocket design.

Through him I also had the distinction of meeting Dr. Wernher von Braun. Dr. Farber and Von Braun – the father of U.S. space program were friends and Dr. Von Braun had come to U.F. in 1975 for the launch of the rocket for US-USSR space docking from Cape Canaveral. Dr. Farber introduced me to him as his star pupil!

Dr. Farber was a teacher at heart and gave excellent lectures about solar energy with insights on practical usage. It is a loss to solar energy community that he never converted those lecture notes into a book. A crowning achievement of his teaching ability was the funding of multimillion dollar TAET center at UF. This 5 year project was funded by USAID to teach scientists, engineers and energy planners from developing countries about renewable energy. It was to Dr. Farber’s credit that the center came to UF, as there was a tough competition from major universities like Cornell, Berkeley, etc., TAET was the first such center anywhere in the world. Later on various avatars of TAET came out both in U.S. and Europe.

As an energy man Dr. Farber lived very frugally. He drove a non A.C. old VW Van and lived in a house which had no air conditioning. Mrs. Farber would always complain about not getting their house air-conditioned. Dr. Farber would tell her that Gainesville temperatures were not that hot and putting fans in the windows can pull in cool outside air ! Many a times when we went to his house for a dinner the temperatures were comfortable, but the humidity was quite high.

In 1976 Dr. Farber came to India as the head of a U.S. delegation on Solar Energy. He met India’s Minister of Energy Shri. K. C. Pant and apparently told him that his best student was an Indian ! Later on when I became close to Mr. Pant he narrated to me the conversation he had with Dr. Farber. During this visit Dr. Farber was also supposed to meet the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the meeting was fixed around 8 p.m., but unfortunately for some reason it had to be postponed and the time given was very close to his U.S. return flight time. So Dr. Farber cancelled his meeting ! He was quite irreverent regarding these things.

In 1980s he helped design the air conditioning system for Gainesville Airport which became the largest building in the world to be air-conditioned by solar energy. No wonder the city of Gainesville in those times was called, the solar capital of US.

His legacy continues through his innumerable students world over. His archives are housed in the Solar House situated in Energy Park on UF Campus. This house which was the first solar house in US to be completely air-conditioned by solar energy was declared an ASME landmark in 2003.

1. Erich Farber, “Solar Energy Conversion R&D at the University of Florida”, Building System Design, Feb/March 1974.
2. ASME Landmark # 223. “Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory”. Declared on 31 January 2003.
3. Anil K. Rajvanshi, 1970s America – A student’s journey, Published by Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, 2008.

(Anil K Rajvanshi, Ph.D. is Director and Hon. Secretary, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI), Phaltan, Maharashtra. He can be contacted at (AKR's articles and talks)
AKR's autobiography (Life of an ordinary Indian...) (Huffington Post blogs) (articles and news published about NARI) (ocassional blogs in Better India)

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