Oliver Headley
- Chemist/Solar Scientist

The sun will still shine when the oil runs out"
- Professor Oliver Headley

Professor Oliver Headley warned: “The sun will still shine when the oil runs out.” He emphasised that need for alternative energy sources in light of diminishing supplies of our sole non-renewable energy source – petroleum. In the early 1960s, Professor Oliver Headley became a pioneer for harnessing solar energy for both heating purposes and crop drying applications. He first conceptualised his solar energy designs for Barbados to generate electricity to power icemakers used on fishing boats and also to supply energy for computers and heat to buildings. He also invented crop dryers to preserve excess produce and seeds at no cost to farmers and solar stills for distilled water production. His greatest achievement was the design of the first and largest grid connect system measuring 17.5kV. It was installed at Harisson’s Cave to sustain power to the country’s number one tourist destination.

Headley’s research and innovations were so advanced that they have not only been utilised locally but regionally and internationally. His photovoltaic cells (solar energy generating cells) and solar still designs are used throughout the Caribbean and Central America.

Oliver St. Clair Headley was born on 5th July 1942 in the parish of St Peter, Barbados. From a young age he showed an intense curiosity and creativity. He was often seen building and dismantling objects and later started designing and making rockets. He attended Harisson’s College he showed a passion for physics. Physics gave him the foundation for understanding how things work and how energy powers objects. He completed his Cambridge Matriculation Examinations in 1961 and received the Barbados Scholarship.

 

He enrolled for a degree in physics at the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) at Mona, Jamaica despite having the opportunity to study anywhere in the world. At the start of the programme, he realised there was not much to pursue in that field so he switched to chemistry. The avid swimmer and a member of the University Water Polo Team graduated with honours in 1964 with a B.Sc. (in Special Chemistry). In 1964 he received the Commonwealth Scholarship to attend University College, London and he obtained his doctorate in 1967. In fulfilment of his Ph.D. he worked with his mentor, Sir Ronald Nyhlom, who influenced his area of speciality - inorganic chemistry. His work on squaric acid was so novel that it was cited in the Fifth Edition of Cotton and Wilkinson’s “Advanced Inorganic Chemistry” textbook.

In 1967 he returned to the Caribbean to fill the position of Assistant Chemistry Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad. He became a Senior Lecturer in 1977 in the Faculty of Engineering, teaching chemistry. He published over 100 papers in international journals in the areas of synthetic organometallic chemistry and solar energy, particularly solar stills. He then studied solar stills for various applications such as distilled water production and solar dryers for seed and crop preservation. For his extensive research he was conferred the title of Reader in Solar Energy by the University of the West Indies.

Headley with officials of the Barbados Light
and Power Company, examining a solar panel

After spending an illustrious career of 25 years in Trinidad, he decided to return to his homeland in 1992. He was appointed Professor of Chemistry and he continued his research in solar energy. As Head of Department, he merged the departments of Biology and Chemistry to form the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES), which had a strong focus on the applications of solar energy. Despite the lack of engineering facilities, numerous solar dryers were built there and exported to other countries. On any given day, one could have noticed scars on Headley’s fingers as he walked into classes, since he built the dryers and evaporators or repaired his designs himself.

He conducted his work with boundless enthusiasm and energy. His goal was to design solar devices that would aid in national development. They included a system to generate electricity to the science and computer labs at the Combermere School; photovoltaic powered lights for powering floodlights at Montgomery School pasture and the Government Headquarters; a generation system for the Barbados Power and Light Company and dryers for produce (mainly peppers and seeds); timber and sugar cane.

For the regional market, he built a spice dryer for nutmeg, mace, bananas and other crops for the Grenada Government; small-scale grain dryers for Guatemala and El Salvador, and a banana dryer for a Belizean farmer whose crops were inferior for export but were viable as a dried snack for hikers and mountain climbers. As a consultant he provided technical advice and guidance on a variety of subjects including climate change, science and technology, renewable energy alternatives and environmental education. Apart from his vision of solar energy, he also was interested in ocean thermal energy. This is novel means of obtaining energy from nature by tapping the extreme water temperature differences in the deep ocean. The project, however, was not considered to be economically feasible for the region.

Professor Headley – a calculator in his palm!

Headley represented his country in many local and international organisations. He was a Member and Director of the International Solar Energy Society; founding Member and President of the Solar Energy Society; Chairman of the National Commission on Sustainable Development; Chairperson of the Caribbean Solar Energy Society; Fellow of the Caribbean Academy of Sciences and Member of the New York Academy of Sciences. In recognition of his tireless work, Headley received many awards including the Companion of Honour of Barbados in 1996.

Despite his numerous commitments he was an exemplary mentor, always having time to speak to his students and offer guidance and advice. His students admired his teaching style, which was enthusiastic, inspiring and accentuated with his sense of humour. In the classroom he was often seen solving third order differential equations on his calculator – the palm of his hand! Similarly, at meetings with his colleagues, he was often seen using the palm of his hands as a writing tablet to design complex solar stills to solve the problem at hand.

He was also known for his generosity, sincerity and humility. Dr Oliver Headley was a spiritual man, a well-respected elder at the Seventh Day Adventist Church and an associate chaplain. Apart from the rigours of his research, he kept up with his literature, photography, riding his bicycle, swimming, hiking and keeping in touch with his friends from around the world. He also loaned his voice as a bass singer with the University choir.

This international visionary and pioneer explored the full potential and applications of solar energy until the time of his death. His invaluable contribution to the energy sector was significant in the shaping of national policies and the development of renewable energy programmes regionally.

Professor Oliver Headley passed away in 2002 at the age of 60 years. 

 
Sources:

Barbados Nation 12-page special Tuesday May 14th 2002. “Oliver Headley: A life of excellence”

Selected Publications:

Headley, Oliver St. C. and Springer, B. G. F. (1970) Effects of design and empirically variable parameters on solar still performance. In: Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on Fresh Water from the Sea Vol. 1. Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. 669-677.

Headley, Oliver and Springer, Basil (1971) Distilled Water from Solar Stills. Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 48.

Headley O. and Springer B. G. F. (1973). A natural convection solar crop dryer. In: Proceedings of the ISES/UNESCO Solar Energy Conference, "The Sun in the Service of Mankind," Paris, Paper No. V 26.

Headley, Oliver (1979) Teaching Solar Energy. Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 56, p. A80.

Headley O., Harvey W. O'N. and Osuji P. O. (1986). Simple solar crop dryers for rural areas. In: Proceedings of ISES Solar World Congress, 22 -29 June, Montreal, Canada, Bilgen E. and Hollands, K. G. T. (Eds) 2, 1082 - 1086, Pergamon Press, New York.

Headley, Oliver St. C. (1986) Solar Energy and the Application of Appropriate Technology in the Caribbean. Bulletin of Eastern Caribbean Affairs 12(3), 7-14.

Headley, Oliver (1986) Drying tropical woods with plastic covered solar timber dryers. Solar Design and Energy in Buildings, (Ed. L.F. Jesch), 69-73, UK ISES, London.

Headley, Oliver and L. Hall (1986) Synthesis and structure of Cobalt (II) squarate chloride. Polyhedron, Vol. 5 No. 11, 1829-1831.

Headley, Oliver (1988) Transitional metal complexes using ligands such as squaric acid and polydentate arsines. Cotton and Wilkinson’s Advanced Inorganic Chemistry, Wiley Interscience 5th edition, page 483.

Headley, Oliver (1988) Alternatives to petroleum fuel. Science Applied in the Caribbean, Chapter 9, 97-110, (Eds. J. Reay and J. Steward), Macmillan Caribbean, London.

Headley, Oliver (1992) Solar and Alternative Energies: Prospects for the Eastern Caribbean. Bulletin of Eastern Caribbean Affairs 17(3), 41-48.

Headley, Oliver (1992) Solar Drying in the Caribbean. Sunworld, Vol. 16, No. 1, 12-15.

Headley, Oliver (1997) Renewable energy technologies in the Caribbean. Solar Energy, Vol 59, Issues 1-3, pages 1-9.

Education:

S.D.A. Church School, Speighstown, Barbados

Harrison College, Barbados

University College of the West Indies, Jamaica - B.Sc. (Special Chemistry), 1964

University College, London – Ph.D. (Chemistry) 1967

Memberships:

Member, American Chemical Society

Awards:

  • Guinness Award for Scientific Achievement 1982

  • OAS Commendation for work on Solar Drying 1985

  • Pioneer Award from the World Renewable Energy Network 1996

  • Companion of Honour of Barbados 1996

  • Gold Medal from the Amir of Bahrain for outstanding achievement in solar thermal energy technology

  • UWI Vice Chancellor’s Award for Public Service 1997

 

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