Introduction: Solar Parabolic Cooker With the Mechanical Mathematician!

Picture of Solar Parabolic Cooker With the Mechanical Mathematician!

I now think that "compound" parabolic dishes have numerous advantages. (A compound parabolic solar cooker can also be made with the mathematician and I can add instructions later.)
Use hardiplank, cardboard, plaster concrete or cob to make any size or shape parabolic reflector with this device! Solar cookers can be made from waste cardboard boxes covered with kitchen foil. Mostly people use math to figure out the parabola or use a template. Lots of mcguyver types are not into math and waste cardboard comes in all shapes and sizes with cuts all over the place so templates are not always suitable..
This method of making a solar cooker is suitable for a one off or assembly line and will work with ANY cardboard Box. Please try one and spread the word about this way of making parabolic cookers.
I cook in dark glass containers and use an oven bag to reduce thermal heat loss.
Currently, I use My cob solar cooker to steralize soil. At 5 pm when i come home, my soil is still at about 60 C (after cooling down for about 3 hours!) And suitable for growing seedlings.
I feel that this method of making solar cookers will prove very adaptable, very affordable and find use all across the world.

Step 1: Introducing the Mechanical Mathematician!

Picture of Introducing the Mechanical Mathematician!

Parabola's are hard to make unless you have some fairly fancy math skills.
But there is another way! The mechanical mathematician!
This little genius solves the parabola for all points on the curve! Using some string to help him. The string is attached at the focus of the parabola and goes through a point on the parabola (on a piece of metal for hanging curtains) and ends up tied at the pipe joiner.
There are many ways to make the mechanical mathematician, and the other one was used to make a cob solar cooker. Which works good.
It was made from old metal chairs and junk!

Step 2: Cutting the Lines

Picture of Cutting  the Lines

This was a square box , it has 4 segments. I divided it lengthwise into 3 equal pieces using 2 lines (in yellow), I scribed them a little, cut with the sissors to extent the cuts to them and bent it over at the lines to mark the line bend into the cardboard.
This gives 12 little same sized rectangles in the box.

Step 3: Add the Glue and Glue Down

Picture of Add the Glue and  Glue Down

each segment was 1 ft wide so I put 1ft kitchen foil across each segment and glued it.
The glue mix was half elmirs glue and half water, mixed well and smeared lightly across the cardboard. I used a sponge to smooth on the foil. You start in the middle of a foil piece and sponge to the edges. It works well!

Step 4: Give It 20 Minutes to Dry

Picture of Give It 20 Minutes to Dry

Glueing all done Have a cup of tea.

Step 5: Making the Mechanical Mathematician!

Picture of Making the Mechanical Mathematician!

The mathematician can be made in many ways. Mine includes a piece of waste trim that is the slide bar at the top, a T-joiner for plastic pipes and a curtan rail that fit snugly into the T-Joiner. The string is strung from a hook on the central post at your favoured focal point, through a hole in the curtain rod and is tied on to the top of the T-Joiner. Some rules! The T-Joiner has to be at right angles to the slide bar which in turn must be at right angles to the central post.
Directly under the hooks on the central post, there is a screw which goes down about a half inch through the bottom of the wood piece at the bottom of the post.
And right under that screw, there is a hole in the dark piece of wood (just a little bigger than the screw). The dark piece of wood sits on the aluminium foil, screw goes in the hole and the top gaget can swivel around while the bottom piece stays in one spot. (This means less scuffing of the foil when the mathematician takes measurements!)

Step 6: Side View of the Mathematician

Picture of Side View of the Mathematician

This shows the slider bar is held in by a couple of screws, and the arangement of the string. It also shows the screw that the device swivels on.

Step 7: Place the Mathematician on the Foiled Cardboard

Picture of Place the Mathematician on the Foiled Cardboard

You should place the mathematician on the middle of the square of you solar cooker that you want to be bottom square. I then put a couple of marks on either side of the dark piece of wood in case it slips. I then put a little dot on the centres of all the other squares. 11 dots in my case.
Next you must set the length of your string line.

Step 8: Getting the String Length Right.

Picture of Getting the String Length Right.

Remove the string from the hook and let the curtain rod drop till it touches the floor or foil. if you want a 10 inch high focal point, place your tape measure on the floor and mark the taut string at 10 inch height. Attach it to the 10 inch hook at that mark. For 12 inches, you have a mark at the 12 inch height and attach it to the 12 inch hook and so forth.

Step 9: Making the Parabolic Curve

Picture of Making the Parabolic Curve

Now raise the curtain rail, and pull out the slider rail until it is right over one of the dots.
raise the dot to the height of the bottom of the rail. (you may have to readjust a little).
Prop something under it and apply the same procedeure to the dot in the middle on the next segment.

Step 10: More Adjusting

Picture of More Adjusting

Same thing is done on the top, the dot in the middle is brought right to the bottom of the curtain rail. Here I supported it with my kitchen garbage can! and various pots and pans and jam jars!

Step 11: Now for the Outer Panels

Picture of Now for the Outer Panels

Now the dots must be done on the outer pannels too so you swivel the mathematician around and raise the pannels until the curtain rail just touches the dot.
Support and do the next one until they are all done.

Step 12: Tape Up the Backs of the Panels So That They Stay That Way

Picture of Tape Up the Backs of the Panels So That They Stay That Way

If you wish you can place wooden supports under it too.

Step 13: Final Product

Picture of Final Product

Your final product will have the focal length that you made. You can place and stick the cardboard from a toilet roll or something similar just under the focus to help you point it at the sun. Directly at means no shadows there.
Generally, I place the food in a 9 inch glass or stoneware dish, put the lid on, and hang it in a metal hanging basket thing at the focus. I cover it all with an oven bag and clothespeg the top.
If you want to make a tracking solar cooker, I suggest you move thecardboard cooker round the focus. The cooker is very light and there is no need to move the food too.

Step 14: Experimental Results and Conclusions

As you know, I made the cardboard parabolic pannel cooker. Previously I also made a larger parabolic cooker with cob.
Saturday was beautiful and I was home nearly all day so I got some experimental results.
I found the cardboard parabola difficult to set up correctly because it is not quite stiff enough. So it needs a spine to back up the cardboard. (Perhaps just one 1by 2 about 4 ft long with pieces attached to keep the middle cardboard segments exact.
Results from the cardboard parabola heating up 1.2 liters of water in a black 0.9 kg teapot were as follows.
(I turned the parabola to follow the sun)
12.50PM 23 C
1.54 pm 33 C
2.16pm 43 C
2.49pm 50 C
3.05pm 55 C
3.31pm 60 C
3.55pm 61 C
(at this point the parabola was in partial shade and I stopped measuring)
At 6.12 it was back down to 34 C in complete shade
Measurement on the big cob parabolic oven went as follows.
I did not turn the parabola but did move the pot a little to follow the focal point
(There were 3.7 kg of wet soil in a 1.35 kg dark glass pot).
11.36 11 C
12.25 24 C
01.54 58 C ( it was already past directly focused at the sun!))
02.16 72 C
02.29 75 C
02.49 80 C
03.05 84 C
03.30 89 C
03.55 90.5 C
04.05 89.5 C
(I measured and the sun was coming in at about 50 degree angle at 4.05 so almost no heat being reflected!)
06.12 67 C cooling down stage
06.34 63 C
Conclusions The cardboard parabola was disappointing because it slightly lost its shape without a stiffening spine. so not correctly focussed on the pot. I didn't have an oven bag for that experiment and my plastic was too snug so energy was lost there too.
Must have a spine to keep the parabola correctly alligned!
The Cob parabola was a different story.
As you can see it continued to heat up long after the sun had passed the best focus (I did move it to follow the focus).
Even on less sunny days during the week when i came home from work, it was still at 55 C at 6.05 on sept 5th,
at 61.5 at 5.26 the next day
and at 61 C at 5.48 a day later.
Why the slow continued heat up?
Perhaps the heat migrates slowly up through the wet clay? Thermometer was in the middle of the pot so it probably took a while for the heat to get there.
Conclusions I do not need more than 70C in wet soil to kill weed seeds so I can use a bigger pot for more efficiency.
Perhaps twice as big! (volume wise) I get 3 gains, 1 bigger pot will stay in focus longer, has bigger volume to surface area ration so will retain heat longer and has bigger volume to pot weight ratio too so more heat usefully used.
The parabola maintains focus on the pot much longer than I thought possible.
3rd conclusion. Tracking or deformed parabola or 2 parabolas would be much better!
If the parabola was stretched along the line that the sun follows, it might maintain focus a lot longer. Or a simple tracking device to move a cardboard parabola round the focus. Or 2 parabolas!
First parabola is for midday to 2 pm and is short focus. Second is to one side of it and is same surface area but longer focus about 20 inches (so it does not interfere with direct sun at 12. By 2;30, this parabola is starting to hit the pot pretty well. The additional effort to make this parabola with the mechanical mathematician would not be great but the benifit would be an extra hour or more of good heat.


diy_bloke (author)2016-03-29

I seem to remember that if you have two solid points with a somewhat loose string around it and you use a pencil that will pull the string tight while drawing around those two points you will have a perfect parabole. As I understand this may sound a bit cryptic, I added a drawing

gaiatechnician (author)diy_bloke2016-03-29

Hi, no, sorry, your diagram will draw an ellipse not a parabola. .An ellipse is an important mathematical shape too but it is generally not used for solar cooking, or light concentration. I sometimes use the above method to make curved walls.

GordieGii (author)gaiatechnician2016-07-30

Actually I can think of one application that uses on ellipse for light concentration. Ruby lasers (or any optically pumped laser) They use a flash tube (like a camera flash) and a lasing rod or tube with an elliptical reflector around them with the two tubes at the foci. All the light from the flash tube converges simultaneously on the lasing tube. I think this is also the premis behind whispering domes.

diy_bloke (author)gaiatechnician2016-03-29

my mistake. my math has become a bit rusty I guess

gaiatechnician (author)diy_bloke2016-03-29

No problem. Thanks so much for going to the trouble to check it out! I have always learned more from my mistakes or from an experiment that when "wrong" than from things that went smoothly


diy_bloke (author)gaiatechnician2016-03-30

no experiment ever goes wrong, it is just a way of discovering what doesnt work

GordieGii (author)diy_bloke2016-07-30

While a parabola is ideal for an infinitely distant light source, an ellipse is ideal for a light source of a finite distance (such as a fire or lamp) where the two fixed points are the foci. Now if you had a really tall tower (say for a windmill or a water tower) and you could hang a string from it and place your other fixed point closer to the ground then you could draw a section of an ellipse that was pretty darn close to a parabola. Probably just as good as the precision of the Mechanical Mathematician. Of course you would need a tower shielded from the wind...

On the other hand you could use this method to draw an ellipse in your camp-site with the fireplace and your chair as the foci and place a bunch of mirrors on the ellipse then you would only need a small fire to keep yourself warm, or just a couple mirrors on the ellipse behind you to keep your back warm.

diy_bloke (author)2016-03-29

I seem to remember that if you have two solid points with a somewhat loose string around it and you use a pencil that will pull the string tight while drawing around those two points you will have a perfect parabole. As I understand this may sound a bit cryptic, I added a drawing

Rob Cook (author)2011-02-08

In this post i came to know more about Solar parabolic cooker which i was searching since long. so thanks for the excellent description and detailing diagram for solar cooker

gaiatechnician (author)Rob Cook2011-02-08

Honestly, it is not that good.
I have continued my "research" and things are now much better.
The clam shaped solar cookers are still a work in progress but are probably a whole lot better than this.

frikkie (author)2010-12-20

one also covers the satelite dish with foil.At my previous job we played around with that.almost melted the plastic rubbish bin.Haha

frikkie (author)2010-12-20

One that does not want to construct the dish can always use an old satelite dish used to watch cable tv as you guys would call it.
You can also build a mechanical device which you can control with a sunseeker circuit.Which is nice if you want the dish to be in the sun the whole day cooking or heating something up.

gitm (author)2008-03-09

Also, if you measure the length of string used to draw the parabola you'll have the focal length. You can even choose a length of string in order to choose your focal length accurate to about 1/2 cm. or better.

gaiatechnician (author)gitm2008-03-28

I don't think that is exactly correct. But certainly, you can get the focal length you want by measurement at the central post. The length of string you need will be twice the focal length +the height to where it is attached on the saddle. has some new info about making a mathematician and mould at the same time.
(It is part of the accumulating barbecue project).
I used a hinge and post and rested the arm on the frame for the mould to make a stronger construction with a much more steady mathematician. This should mean a more accurate dish (or part dish)
I no longer make dishes. I make sections of dishes and there are a number of reasons to do this.

gitm (author)gaiatechnician2008-04-03

The string is intended to draw an arc for creating the curved surface. Once the focal length, and therefore the arclength, have been chosen and drawn, a piece of string half the length of the secant line of the arc can be used to draw the circumference. I'm not sure what is meant by "central post" and "saddle". Perhaps we're thinking of two different things.

gaiatechnician (author)gitm2008-04-04

I think we are thinking of 2 different things. I think secant generally refers to circles. The device above draws the surface of a parabolic dish, not a circle. The "saddle" is in blue in the diagram above and it slides back and forth. There is a picture of my latest mathematician at and in that case, the saddle is made of wood, and it is on a wooden "arm" that is hinged to the central post. In that case, I am not trying to make a total dish, just a mould for a piece of a dish.
(This might start to make sense if you look at the "tracking solar barbecue, the wave of the future" video which might be in the related column on your right.)

Attamet (author)gaiatechnician2009-12-02

 I don't understand why this makes parabola's
to me it looks like it just makes circles, because the string keeps a constant radius, which makes a circle, while a parabola has to have a constantly changing radius.
could you please explain why this works?

gaiatechnician (author)Attamet2009-12-03

The drawing is not clear enough but it  has image notes to explain it. 
The string is attached at the focal point and at the saddle. 
It is not attached at the slider bar.
String passes through an "eye" in the slider bar. 
As you move the saddle nearer or further from the central Post, string passes through the eye so it is not a constant radius.
It traces a parabolic dish.

Attamet (author)gaiatechnician2009-12-03

thanks now i see what you mean

AnarchistAsian (author)2008-09-16

cool! i'm listed as a collaborator! ... but what do you need? was it a mistake?

gaiatechnician (author)2007-12-15

Just a note that i have several video's on utube and on google video about this project now. If you know anyone who does misionary or relief agency work, please let them know about this and the videos. Some on google are longer and clearer quality (at least if you download them) so that you can better share the ideas. (Utube fogs up some videos a bit and you have to have the files small). If you are prepared to download large files, grab the explaination from google video. Please grab copys of the new start diagram too. And, anyone speak a foreign language? It would be excellent if it were translated into swahili, french, indian languages, tigali and spanish and portugeese. You have my permission to do so. Thank you Brian White

higgrobot (author)2007-09-03

Another non math way to derive a parabolic curve is to get a length of dowel and just stretch a length of string from end to end. Just use the resulting curve as a profile, works ok.

Other non math solar cooker designs that may interest you


This may come in handy if you decide to make one of them, just print it out and stick it to something

gaiatechnician (author)higgrobot2007-09-05

I took a look at the harf link. I think that link is useful to parabola makers too. Your parabola does not need to be close to the focus. You can make the parabola a bit to one side of the focus if you wish! The advantage? Imagine aiming at a 9 inch round fish bowl. A bunch of the light from a 9 inch square directly under will miss it. But if your light is reflected at an angle, your square can be bigger and nearly all the light will hit the fish bowl. So less bends are needed.

gaiatechnician (author)higgrobot2007-09-03

Although it is a little harder initially to make the mechanical mathematician, the cardboard is more efficiently used by this method. More surface area is available to collect sunlight.
Also, the mechanical mathematician is adaptable. If a larger piece of cardboard comes along, or a larger cooking vessel is available, You can reset the focus or the size of the segments to use that too. I have a video on utube about using the mechanical mathematician to make a parabolic oven with cob.
These videos are pretty long though! Not for everybody's taste!

tomc3uk (author)2007-09-03

errm.. Why do you sterilize soil if you don't mind my asking?

gaiatechnician (author)tomc3uk2007-09-03

If you just use ordinary soil from your garden to germinate seeds you run into 3 problems. Weed seeds , microbial attack and bug attack. The chance of successful seedlings is greatly reduced. I find you only need to solar cook to about 60 centigrade to greatly improve your success rate. Solar cooked soil can also be used round transplants to stop weeds from germinating. I always apply water to the soil first so it doesn't burn in the solar cooker.

About This Instructable




Bio: I am a stone mason. My hobby is making new solar cooking and gardening stuff. I have used solar heat to cook soil for a ... More »
More by gaiatechnician:Trompe and airlift pump model for schoolsDIY Constriction Airlift Pumpswater flea water filter for fishpond!
Add instructable to: