By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Then, citing lack of funds, Alfred closed down the labs. Robin, at the time a father of two and in his second marriage (which ended in 1992), began a search for additional investors. Scragg continued to demonstrate the device to interested researchers but began devoting his energies to creating a new type of automobile engine that would run on natural gas. (He received a patent for that motor this past December.)
Little happened until 1984, when Alfred called a meeting of his stockholders. They approved several changes, and Alfred remained chairman but said he would devote more time to architecture. Robin became president and took charge. Coyle became an SRT director. He was of special importance because one of his clients was FPL, a potential backer. The group fired Scragg and Norton. “We were sort of shoved out, so to speak,” says Scragg, who hasn't spoken to the Parkers since then.
When asked about Scragg's departure from the company, Alfred comments: “He got into building an engine. That's what he wanted to do.”
Robin recalls that his father's failed efforts to win funding from the Department of Energy in the late Seventies eventually drew notice from another quarter of the federal government: the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Pentagon. Scientists thought the technology had potential for use in the Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based missile system. Soon SRT had agreements with military contractors TRW and Rocketdyne. “I had to have a security clearance,” Parker says with a laugh. “The FBI came down to visit us. It was a classified program, and we were the prime contract on it. The FBI man sat down and said, “Have you ever used or known anyone who has ever used an illegal substance?'” Parker cracks a smile. “And I said, “I grew up in Coconut Grove. I studied at the University of Florida in the Sixties. What do you think?' He said, “No you have not [used drugs].'”
With an unlimited budget, researchers explored not only using SRT's chemical process as a fuel source but also as an energy-storage system or fuel cell. However, Congress halted funding for SDI in 1988 and Pentagon money for the SRT project dried up. Parker came away with a valuable asset: data proving the energy-storage system worked. He promptly presented that evidence to the Department of Energy. DOE experts were concerned the technology might not be safe enough for commercial development because it used HCl, a highly volatile liquid. “Robin and the people who advise him came to the conclusion that if you have a tank of HCl and it leaked, it would evaporate into the atmosphere,” says Robert Hanrahan, a University of Florida chemist who has been SRT's lead scientist since 1984. He suggested HBr. “Bromine is nowhere near as volatile, and it would probably just stay as a puddle for long enough to solve the problem,” Hanrahan asserts. “So it's a matter of working safety.” That is not to say the liquid is safe. “You've got to be very careful with it,” he cautions. Scragg adds a warning about bromine gas: “It'll eat the lining off your lungs in a flat second.”
Hanrahan perfected the reaction with bromine instead of chlorine while the architect cum energy entrepreneur convinced DOE to keep funds flowing. “Robin could talk the talk,” Neil Rossmeissl reports. “He's very intelligent and even though he wasn't a scientist, he knew enough from his experiments that he could really talk about the challenges to making the technology successful as well as the benefits,” says Rossmeissl. “Everybody respected what he was doing.”
In 1993 Parker won more federal financing. At the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, researchers proved that SRT's solar energy storage apparatus worked with bromine. But there was a new problem: Department of Energy policymakers concluded that the high cost of solar collection devices needed for SRT's device would render it commercially unviable for a long time. Continued funding was in jeopardy.
It was at this juncture especially that Parker's incorrigible drive to bring SRT's energy storage wonders to the real world created tensions in his extended family. One infamous event in Parker lore took place at a family dinner on July 4, 1993, at his mother's house. Among those at the table were Parker, his sister Bebe, and her new boyfriend Dennis Coyle, who had been FPL's general counsel since 1989. Just a few days before, Parker had received a letter from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a San Francisco-based organization funded by power companies including FPL. He was very excited because EPRI had agreed to provide two million dollars per year for SRT's energy-storage experiments.
“I remember Dennis saying, “I don't believe in the technology,' much to Robin's shock,” Melahn recalls. “At my table!”
Parker adds: “All I wanted FPL to do was to write a letter to EPRI saying we support SRT's technology and we would like to sponsor a ... research program and we would like ten percent of our dues to go to their research program. That's all. He wouldn't even consider it.... He said “I can't do it.' Right there in front of my mother and sister and everyone.”