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Richard Post, energy scientist and prolific inventor, dies at 96

Richard Post, scientist and prolific inventor who was working on renewable-energy storage, dies at 96

One night during World War II, Richard Post, a civilian scientist for the Navy, was summoned from his bunk in Hawaii by the legendary Adm. Chester Nimitz.

The mission: Go immediately to Guam and help upgrade U.S. submarine sonar systems and train sailors to use them in an attack in the Sea of Japan.

It was an early signal that U.S. leaders saw Post as a technical genius, a hunch that would be proven over the next seven decades when Post became among the leading scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Just last year he had more inventions to his credit than any of the 3,000 members of the lab's technical staff. His name is on 34 patents.

Most inventors run out of ideas long before retirement, and Post's productivity even in his 90s was, itself, a scientific mystery. But not to him.

The key, he said in an interview in his office just a few weeks ago, was pretty simple. "Use it or lose it," he said.

Post, 96, died Tuesday in Walnut Creek after a sudden illness that struck just a few days earlier. Until the end, he was pushing the technological limits of storing massive amounts of renewable energy — an effort he believed could alter the battle against global warming.

"Dick Post is the real deal, a national treasure," Parney Albright, a former Livermore lab director, said before his death.

"He is very modest. Even in the scientific community most people have never heard of him. Yet he accomplished what the best of them ever accomplish. I can't think of a scientist who would not be proud to have had Dick's career," said Albright, now president of the HRL Laboratory in Malibu, a science center operated by General Motors and Boeing.

The small office and lab where Post worked is left with stacks of reports, design documents and pieces of machinery in every corner — a measure of the vast output of ideas, theories and hopes over his career.

It was there that over the decades he pioneered the science of confining fusion energy with powerful magnetic mirrors and made strides in the research of magnetic levitation.

In recent years, Post focused on the goal of storing massive amounts of energy in a flywheel that would spin at supersonic speed inside a vacuum chamber. The perfection of a high-energy flywheel, he believed, could be used to combat global warming, creating the ability to store large amounts of renewable energy and eliminate many of the high costs associated with it.

"I have a long view," Post said. "We are underestimating the importance of converting from petroleum-based fuels to something that is not contributing to global warming."

Outside his work, Post had begun piano lessons, not easy for a man with arthritis in his hands. On weekends, he would fly remote-controlled helicopters with his son, Stephen Post, an inventor who pioneered electric vehicle control devices and runs a development lab in Livermore.

In his younger years, he was an avid runner and hiker. He swore by a regimen of eating fresh pineapple every morning, convinced by a fellow Livermore doctor that the fruit causes the body to expel cholesterol. But Post allowed himself at least some dietary indulgences: One morning last month there was an open bag of fried corn chips on his desk.

The death two years ago of his wife, Marylee, after 66 years of marriage, hit Post hard, but his three children stepped into the void, he said in that recent interview, giving him renewed focus on the grand pursuit of a flywheel that could change the power grid of the nation.

"I see a man who not only has a mission and a huge brain, but is the sweetest person in the world," his daughter, Hollywood actress Markie Post, said before his death.

Post was born Nov. 13, 1918, and grew up in Pomona. After he graduated from Pomona College, he began his work for the Navy. After the war, he earned a doctorate in physics from Stanford University and joined the Livermore lab within months of its opening in 1952.

His daughter recalled the Posts being the last family on the block to have a television in the 1950s but also getting a chance to sit down at dinner with Russian scientists during the Cold War.

Post's career, like those of many scientists and engineers, had setbacks. He was one of the leading experts on the use of magnet mirrors to control fusion energy, but the funding for his research was slashed when the Energy Department decided in the 1980s to put its investments into an alternative technology, known as tokamaks.

"It was a tragedy," Post said. But instead of letting it become a career dead end, he reinvented himself and returned to one of his earlier areas of research, the flywheel.

Post authored some of the seminal pieces on the modern flywheel in the 1970s, writing both technical papers and a lengthy article in Scientific American, in which he proposed newly developed lightweight composites that held out the promise of storing much greater amounts of energy.

"Dad had a history of tackling huge, difficult questions," said Stephen Post, who co-authored the Scientific American piece.

The rationale for flywheels has grown stronger with the fight against global warming. Green energy from wind and solar farms is intermittent, produced only at certain times of the day or night and can suddenly drop off with weather changes. The lack of reliable generation by renewables means it has to be backed by fossil-fuel plants, adding significantly to its cost.

Post believed flywheels could store vast amounts of power with some improvements. He envisioned a desk-size system that could store energy at more than 90% efficiency, better than any existing battery. His technical work focused on the magnetic levitation system that would allow the flywheel to float without friction and the electronics to minimize heat buildup in the internal motor generator. It would store and release power much like a hybrid car's regenerative brake system.

Despite the promise of flywheels, Post was among relatively few scientists working on the technology. The University of Texas at Austin has also done extensive flywheel work at its Center for Electromechanics. Robert Hebner, director of the center, said he was familiar with Livermore's work on flywheels and considers it, as well as that of his own lab, among the best in the world.

Last year, Post received six formal "records of invention" at Livermore, the first step in obtaining a patent. The next most productive scientist received five. Post was hoping for a $10-million investment to build a new flywheel that would verify the design of his electrostatic generator. The lab is in the final stages of arranging a cooperative research agreement for the work with a European company.

"It will still go ahead, but no one is Dick Post," said lab spokesman Steve Wampler.

Post is survived by his children Stephen Post of Walnut Creek, Rodney Post of Concord, Calif., and Markie Post of Toluca Lake, as well as five granddaughters and one great grandson.

"His loss is a huge one for us, and we all believe it is also a huge loss to the scientific community and the field of alternate energy," Markie Post said. "We thought he would be here a lot longer; we were spoiled by his vigor."

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Twitter: @RVartabedian

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