Originally conceived as a means to help emerging nations to develop alternative energy technology, a program funded by the US State Department is proving to be a powerful diplomatic tool as well.
The International Training Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville is less than a year old, but already the federal government's $1.5 million investment is paying dividends, according to Dr. Eric Farber, the director.
So far 66 participants from 31 countries have studied alternative energy (with a focus on solar power) under Dr. Farber's direction at the center. The goal, he says, is to "give them the theory and let them work in the laboratory and build some of the equipment that is applicable to their needs and use materials available to them."
"Besides the training, these people report back to their respective governments any impressions they receive, and that will have great influence on future relationships between these countries and the United States."
Dr. Farber, who incorporated the training center into the Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory he set up on the Florida campus more than 25 years ago, says that initial reaction to the program has been positive. Participants maintain contact with one another and the US, which defrayed their expenses for the program.
"We are forming basically a network throughout the world," he asserts.
Among the nations to participate so far are Egypt, India, Jordan, the Sudan, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, Peru, Ghana, Thailand, and Turkey.
Foreign embassies, missions, and the State Department disseminate information on the program to potential applicants. Dr. Farber says that about four times too many people applied for the two initial 15-week sessions held last year.
Although the program is geared for mid-level government or private industry representatives from third-world nations, the director says that up to 10 US citizens also can be accommodated.
The US pays only for foreign citizens.
Dr. Farber explained the program during a session on energy education at the third Miami International Conference on Alternative Energy sources, held recently.
"We spent time on things other than just solar energy," he said. "We have about two weeks of biomass. We usually spend the mornings for the first eight weeks on theory. The afternoons are spent in the laboratory. there are guest lecturers and then on most weekends and sometimes on Fridays there are field trips. And we take one week out of the program to go out West, where we show them some of the solar installations in New Mexico, Arizona, and so on."
Participants get to probe alternative energy installations that work as well as those that are failures.
During the sessions, Dr. Farber stressed his formula for applying alternative energy. First, you must use the best source of energy you can find to do the task. Second, you must do it for a reasonable cost. And third, it must fit the social structure.
Participants in the two initial alternative-energy training sessions built air-conditioning systems, refrigeration systems, solar engines, Stirling engines , photovoltaic devices, and cooki ng stoves.