Solar energy is enjoying widespread support today for the role it can play meeting our energy needs, but it hasn't always been that way. CU-Boulder Professor Emeritus Frank Kreith remembers clearly when Americans saw nuclear power as the hope of the future. With the motto "Atoms for Peace," President Dwight Eisenhower led the charge in 1953 to broadly apply nuclear power to the world's daily energy needs.
Kreith, whose work in heat transfer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the late 1940s was relevant to the nuclear industry, might have played a significant role in that field. But "Red" hysteria was rampant in those days, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy had accused Kreith along with many other students at Berkeley of being communist sympathizers.
"Who knows what would have happened otherwise?" Kreith says, flashing a wide grin acknowledging that his inability to do nuclear energy research launched him on a very different path in renewable energy technologies.
An active teacher, scholar, and octogenarian who celebrates the 50th anniversary of his joining the CU-Boulder faculty this year, Kreith is widely recognized for his contributions in solar power, heat transfer, energy conservation, and transportation. He wrote one of the most widely used heat transfer textbooks in the country, has won numerous awards from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and even has an ASME award named in his honor—the Frank Kreith Energy Award recognizing outstanding individuals who have promoted a sustainable energy future.
"I believe this world is not going to survive unless we have a sustainable energy system," says Kreith, who served on President Jimmy Carter's solar energy review committee and advised the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Energy, and many state governments during his career.
That's quite a legacy for a teenager who, 70 years ago in Austria, faced a very uncertain future. In 1939, Kreith was among some 10,000 Jewish children delivered by the Kindertransport from the horrors of Nazi Germany to Great Britain before the start of World War II. Kreith was 16 at the time of the historic humanitarian effort and was fortunate to be able to rejoin his parents in the United States within two years.
By the end of the war, he had graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and he went on to earn a master's degree at UCLA and a doctorate from the University of Paris.
Kreith's teaching career started in 1951 at Berkeley, where he was offered a faculty position despite the stigma of McCarthy's accusations. He subsequently transferred to CU-Boulder where he taught from 1959 to 1977. Among his most accomplished students during this period were Distinguished Engineering Alumni Awardees Joseph Cannon (PhD ChemEngr'71), Jan Kreider (MS Mech Engr'68, PhD ChemEngr'73), Ken May (MS ChemEngr'74), and JoAnn Joselyn (ApMath'65, PhD Astro'78).
In 1977, Kreith jumped at the chance to help the federal government establish the Solar Energy Research Institute and play a leading role in the development of solar energy technology. He left CU (temporarily, as it turns out) to serve as chief of thermal research and senior research fellow. He looks back fondly on the institute's early years, but says that funding cutbacks during the Reagan era severely damaged morale.
Then, in 1988 when he turned 65, the government forced him to retire. Kreith then took a position with the National Conference of State Legislatures where he advised the 50 states on conservation and solar energy legislation for the next 13 years. He planned to retire in 2001, until then-interim Dean Roop Mahajan called and convinced him to return to the classroom.
At 86, Kreith still shows few signs of slowing down. He climbs the stairs to his second-floor office in the Engineering Center where he is working on his 12th book, this one an autobiography. He advises mechanical engineering students on their senior projects, and he teaches an interdisciplinary class focusing on sustainable energy policy.
"This is by far the best class I've taken," Kyle Converse, a mechanical engineering senior who took Kreith's course last term told the Daily Camera. The students worked in pairs to write energy plans for several different countries, taking on the role of "energy ministers" as they strived to pull as much of their energy as possible from renewable sources.
Kreith, who clearly still has the passion and the relevance to inspire students, also remains active on the policy front, recently sending his latest research analysis—including support for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles among other things—to new Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
"He has always had a tremendous thirst for knowledge, and he wants to share that knowledge and see it used," says Ronald West, who retired from the chemical engineering department in 1995. "I enjoyed (being his co-author on two books) because he was very exciting to work with."