The amazing Solar Furnace in Parkent – and how to visit it!

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At a guest house in Samarkand we met Ben from Young Pioneer Travels, a travel agency that specializes in budget trips to North Korea and strange former Soviet places in general. He told us about the solar furnace north of Tashkent and how to visit it. A few weeks later, coming from the small town of Parkent, we see a huge and rather indefinable building on one of the foothills of the Chimgan mountains. A somehow pyramid-shaped tower in metallic white and yellow. It is a type of building we would otherwise associate with a weird religious cult, but we are in Uzbekistan and that’s clearly out of the question.

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A donkey is grazing outside the gate to the compound next to an old Lada Zhiguli. The sign at the gate reads “Institute of Material Sciences, Physics – Sun”. After meeting one of the head scientists we can enter the compound without any further controls. There are some concrete office blocks, lawns and flowers, and behind them that strangely shaped tower.

Mirzo, who shows us around, is a scientist and an expert on solar physics. He speaks quite good English and occasionally leads foreign tourists through the facility.

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Dozens of large mirrors at the solar furnace

Opposite the tower, on the north side of the area stretching up onto the hill, we notice dozens of large mirrors. Mirrors the size of small houses, each of them consisting of hundreds of individual smaller mirrors, we see now. And the tower, seen from this side, also consists of mirrors forming a giant concave mirror.

The field of mirrors on the north side are called heliostats. They are moved according to the sun so that they always reflect all the sunlight that hits them into the enormous concave mirror. This in turn concentrates the light in its focal spot 18 m away and about 5 stories above ground. Another, smaller tower stands right there – in that small room in the centre of the whole facility, the sunlight from about 2000 m2 is gathered – and that in a place where the sunlight falling on your head for a few hours is enough to make it spin. On sunny days, that bundled sunbeam produces temperatures well over 3000°C in the furnace installed in the smaller central tower.

This is enough to melt some materials such as aluminium oxide, which are then used to produce some special ceramics, or for endurance tests of high-tech materials.

One out of two solar furnaces in the world

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The Solar Furnace in Parkent is one of only two such facilities worldwide, the other one standing in Southern France. This Uzbek Solar Furnace was built in the 1980s. The scientists chose the spot with the most sunlight and the clearest air in the whole Soviet Union (says Mirzo). It was a showcase high-tech institute, fitted with fancy futuristic art pieces and chandeliers in the office block and staffed by experts trained in the best universities in Moscow.

And then, only a few years later, the Soviet Union fell apart. The newly independent Uzbekistan was left with a scientific institution rather out of its league. Since then,the scientists maintain the solar furnace and use it for scientific work. But it’s not profitable and showing it off to tourists on overcast days is a way to make ends meet. At the end of the tour, Mirzo shows us a normal sized, modern solar panel. Now they can at least produce some of the electricity they need for the building and the grounds – the solar furnaces produces only heat.

How to visit the Solar furnace in Parkent

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To visit the premises you need a special permission by the scientists. Entrance fee ist around 5$ per person plus around 100 000 Som (around 15 €) per group. You would need a Russian speaker to organize this. To get there you could take a bus to Parkent town and take a taxi for the last 8 km to the Solar furnace. Walking back to Parkent through the countryside would also be a possibility.

We also included the visit to the solar furnace in the new editian of our Uzbekistan guidebook (in German). Besides the solar furnace we found some more new highlights in Uzbekistan.

Interested in off-the-beaten track travel destinations in Uzbekistan? Check out our post about a trip to the shores of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

16 Comments

  1. Oh wow! That is quite interesting, especially with all of the mirrored surfaces. I haven’t ever heard of solar furnaces, but it’s no wonder as there are only two in the world. P.S. At first I thought you rode the donkey there. Lol!

  2. I’m glad to hear there is some English assistance, and from a solar scientist no less! The architecture is really stunning, it gives a futuristic vibe, as if it’s a Mars colony. Though the solar furnaces don’t make much profit, glad to hear it brings in tourists!

    1. Unfortunately not many tourists even know about it. The solar furnace in Parkent is still a scientific institution and guiding tourists around is not part of the job of the scientists. Not sure what will happen with it in the near future.

  3. How fascinating! Ahead of their time, to think this was in the 1980s. They not only are building sustainable options, but have managed to make it architecturally interesting and appealing. I would definitely like to do this tour, it’s a bit unique way to learn about the destination you are visiting.

    1. Well – the solar furnace does not produce electricity. It produces only heat to melt other materials. And on most days, Mirzo told us, there is not enough sun to reach such high temperatures.

  4. You are so right, I would have associated that structure with a weird religious cult, for sure! This was a very interesting, read. I never heard of a ‘solar furnace’ before. It seems like an ingenious, effective and cheap way to produces heat. I can’t believe the temperature inside the furnace can reach 3000ºC, wow!

    1. I am not sure if it is really that effective or efficient. I think during the 80s it was a scientific experiment and they never developed it further.

  5. The place has such a futuristic design, not what I would really expect to see in Uzbekistan. It’s interesting that such an elaborate construction which must have cost quite a bit is not profitable anymore. Great tourist attraction though.

    1. The future of the solar furnace is quite uncertain. It was a prestige project in the 1980s and there are still top scientists working there. It is a great tourist attraction, but I really hope that it does not develop into a lost place or dark tourism site.

  6. I’ve never heard of this place in Uzbekistan. To be honest, I had no idea that solar furnaces existed. The solar furnace in Parkent seems to be an exciting scientific place. But for me, as a layman, it also is attractive as an architectural object. The mirrored surfaces are incredibly photogenic. It’s great to know that it is one of two solar furnaces globally, and the second is in France.

    1. We had never heard of solar furnaces either. As there are only two of them and these are sort of a thing of the past, it is no wonder that not many people know about them. But visiting the solar furncae in Uzbekistan was really a special experience.

  7. The Solar Furnace in Parkent certainly is an interesting structure sitting up on the hill. I too might know what it might be. I have never seen a heliostat before. But what a great way to collect an amazing amount of heat and energy. So great that you got a tour and learned so much.

    1. Yes. We were in Uzbekistan to do research for the new edition of a guidebook (in German) and we also included it in the book. So hopefully in the future more tourists will find their way to the solar furnace.

  8. I appreciate places like this that are not on many people’s radar (but it should be). The information and photos sound and look like something out of Star Trek, but if Parkent has been using this system for over 30 years now and it works, that’s just wow! A small town but with one big claim for that giant solar furnace.

    1. An amazing concept, isn`t it? I guess building these solar furnaces and maintaining them is very expensive. That is why they have never been built in larger numbers. Also it produces only heat not energy.

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