In the 60s, when scientists shot for the moon, George Szego was there. In the 70s, as the nation's scientific priorities shifted from space exploration to a search for new energy sources, George Szego shifted with them.
The 58-year-old chemical engineer has a tendency to end up on science's most popular frontiers. Only this time, for a change, he wants to use what he knows to get rich - something he makes sure a visitor understands about him and his young company at the start.
"This company is anything but a think tank," Szego said in a recent interview at InterTechnolgy/Solar Corp., the research and engineering firm he runs in Warrenton, Va. "This is intended to be a for-profit company. We're interested only in broad scale products with a mass market. We'd like to do something about human fertility control or hunger or energy, but only if it pays."
The reason Szego is so anxious to spell out his interest in money is that for a long time he has been known as an expert researcher more concerned about reports that riches. He would like to be known as a businessman.
He used to work at the Institute for Defense Analyses, preparing studies on internal combustion engines and fuel cells and space-age propulsion systems. "I was known as Mr. Space Power," he said of those days. In 1970, he went into business for himself and started ITC/Solar hoping to capitalize on America's budding curiosity about solar energy and fuel alternatives to oil.
But while he fiddled and fussed over inventions in garages, second floors and backyards around Warrenton, he had to do something to keep his fledgling firm alive. So he wrote more reports for the government, some of which like "The U.S. Energy Problem," done for the National Science Foundation in 1971, and a 1972 solar development plan for the Energy Research and Development Association, stood out as milestones in the field.
Today, Szego finally has some hardware to sell. His company manufacturers thin, long, flat, charcoal-colored plates used in solar panels. It also makes a solar-powered hot water heater called a "Joule Box" which, for the price of $1.225, will generate enough current to satisfy roughly three-fourths of the hot water needs of a family of four living in the Washington area.
The potential profits in solar heating devices have attracted a horde of inventors and entrepreneurs, some of whom make sunlight-aborsing panels similar to ITC/Solar's Sensitive to the charge of being in what is still so unsettled an industry, Szego stressed his commitment to stay. He also boasted of his experience to date.
ITC/Solar, for instance, was chosen in 1973 by the National Science Foundation as one of four companies to build a demonstration model of a solar-heated high school in Fauquier County, Va. The company has since designed sun-powered buildings in 9 states.
But solar energy, while currently the most commercial alternative among a relatively untried lot of alternatives to oil, gas and coal, is only one direction in which ITC/Solar has been moving. The company also has developed a system to use plants for fuel. Called an "energy plantation," Szego has been traveling around the country and around the world (especially to South Africa and the Middle East) promoting the use of marginal land to grow a special breed of plant which grows fast and is easy to harvest. The fuel crop can be used to power boilers or can be digested into synthetic natural gas.
"The company believes there are significant quantities of such land (for growing the crop) in the U.S. and elsewhere," a company statement explains. "The system does not increase the level of carbon dioxide in the air; it is therefore preferable to coal from an environmental point of view and the company believes the process may prove competitive from the point of view of cost."
This month ITC/Solar received a $29,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to study whether municipal sludges could be used to fertilize the energy plantation. The grant is only one of a number Szego expects his company will have to rely on for awhile, for despite projected sales of $2 million this year, the cost of research and development continue to mount.
The company lost $101,000 in 1974 and $241,000 in 1975 and $136,000 last year. Earlier this year ITC/Solar sold $1,375,000 in stock and warrants, money which Szego said will be used to develop further lines of business.