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18 September 2015 / leggypeggy

Now for a hit of French science—big science

Solar furnace in France

What is it? A performance stage? A mirror for skiers?

Lately I’ve done a few posts about France and her art, so I figured it was time to do one about France and her science.

I’ve always known that France has a rich science history, but I never knew it held the world’s record for something big.

Both Poor John and I were gobsmacked to gaze down from our hotel room in the Pyrenees Mountains, near the French–Spanish border, and see a gigantic reflective box, probably about 10 storeys high.

At first I thought it was a large stage for outdoor performances. Poor John is much more imaginative than I am and, given that we were in one of France’s oldest ski resorts, he thought it was the bottom of a ski slope where people could look at (and admire) themselves from three directions as they skied to the bottom.

But the cheery woman at reception (who gave us a room with a view at no extra cost) explained that it was a famous (yeah, we’d never heard of it) solar furnace—the largest in the world.

So there we were in Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via (we’d never heard of it either) with this history-making object just down the hill and around the corner. So we had to visit and take the tour before we drove on to Spain.

smaller mirrors at solar furnace, France

Smaller mirrors collect the first rays of the sun

large mirror structure at solar furnace, France

Rays are then bounced to the gigantic mirror array (see the little car at the bottom left?)

The furnace’s education centre, which has a mix of written, photographic, models and hands-on exhibits, explains that the furnace is not used to generate power for the community.

Instead its 10,000 mirrors bounce the sun’s rays onto a large concave mirror which focuses the enormous amount of sunlight it receives onto an area about the size of a cooking pot.

This, in turn, produces temperatures in excess of 3000°C (or 5430°F) that allow scientists to carry out projects on energy, the environment, materials for use in space and materials of the future.

We read the English booklet, pushed all the buttons, twisted all the dials, watched the video and saw the demonstration of how the sun’s ray’s can start a fire in a nanosecond. It was an hour well spent and admission was cheap.

The solar furnace was built more than 40 years ago and has a smaller ‘sister’, site, Thémis, which we saw by chance later when we drove on to Spain.

Given that we’re talking sun, I can’t resist sharing this recipe for pasta with sun-dried tomatoes.


Tucked away in a beautiful landscape, the tall ‘sister’ site at Thémis


Leave a Comment
  1. Vicki / Sep 18 2015 9:09 am

    I assume you’re entering the Pyranees via Andorra – hope so, as the winding drive is really spectacular and I remember being inspired to write a poem about it. Memory is a funny thing. I can’t remember much of my travels in Europe, but instantly upon reading your post, I remembered that drive and name Andorra.


    • leggypeggy / Sep 18 2015 3:09 pm

      We didn’t quite make it to Andorra, but we did have a lovely drive through the Pyrenees. I did a similar drive in 2003, and the views were just as spectacular.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. suchled / Sep 18 2015 9:14 am

    I agree with Vicki. Now I’ll have to look up one of my very earliest post about my trip to Spain via Andorra. And I do love the art that is so often an integral part of science. Great shot.


    • leggypeggy / Sep 18 2015 3:09 pm

      Thanks. I look forward to reading about your trip to Spain.


  3. Yvonne / Sep 18 2015 9:15 am

    Well, you live and learn, eh? What a cool (or hot) idea.


  4. Mike / Sep 18 2015 9:57 am

    Wow, what a rad looking building! Cool photos too. Thanks for sharing!


    • leggypeggy / Sep 18 2015 3:10 pm

      It’s an amazing structure, and I’m sorry I forgot to ask exactly how tall it is.


  5. luckyjc007 / Sep 18 2015 1:28 pm

    Enjoyed reading this! Great photos.


  6. Jane / Sep 18 2015 2:52 pm

    Wow, that is an impressive structure. It’s a shame we don’t have more solar investment in Australia, given how much sunshine we have! Thanks for the interesting info. I had to smile at John’s idea. Nowadays it’s not actually such a strange idea. We seem to have mirrors everywhere! 🙂


    • leggypeggy / Sep 18 2015 3:12 pm

      Australia should be the world leaders in solar! And yes, I like Poor John’s theory.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Galavanting Gran / Sep 18 2015 6:58 pm

    I agree completely with Jane. I had neither heard of the place or the installation. Great pics as I find it hard to get more than bits of large structures.


    • leggypeggy / Sep 19 2015 3:52 pm

      It helps that I have a wide-angle lens and that, for the first one, I was halfway up a mountain. 🙂


  8. Curt Mekemson / Sep 19 2015 10:01 am

    I liked the idea of people skiing down the mountain and looking in the mirror to see their images. But the science is impressive too. Thanks for sharing. –Curt


    • leggypeggy / Sep 19 2015 3:53 pm

      Poor John also thinks that ski jumping events would be more interesting if everyone jumped at the same time.


  9. Sy S. / Sep 19 2015 10:29 am

    Hi, very Interesting French Science project and like others have said, more should be done to harvest the strong suns rays or for science research… maybe discover some benefits for third world countries. When I read the word “mirror” I thought of the town in Norway that redirected the suns rays in winter to give sunshine to areas which normally would not see sun during winter months;



    • leggypeggy / Sep 19 2015 3:56 pm

      Wow, Sy, thanks for the link to that article about Norway. The sun is there, waiting for us to make us of it, so it’s good to know when people take clever advantage of this remarkable resource.


  10. Aufgewacht / Sep 20 2015 3:09 am

    I see it for the first time


  11. Steve Schwartzman / Sep 20 2015 9:11 am

    That solar furnace reminds me of my years as a mathematics teacher, when I showed students some of the properties of parabolas and paraboloids. In particular, all rays that come in parallel to the axis of the curve or surface are reflected to a common point.


    • leggypeggy / Sep 20 2015 4:16 pm

      The furnace is a brilliant example of that property of parabolas.


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