When the sun begins its journey across the sky in the morning, it is a beautiful sight. The rays coming from the orange ball in the sky paint a picture of hope and inspiration for the day. The sun is a vital source of energy for life on Earth. Without it, nothing would grow, and we would not be able to survive.
Although the sun gives off plenty of energy to the planet, not all of it is useful. When the sun shines on Earth, we often see it reflected in ponds, lakes, and other bodies of water. However, a significant amount of the sun’s energy is actually wasted due to inefficiency in the system. Most of the time, the sun’s rays are not beamed directly on to the resource we need the most – land – but are instead scattered, reflected, or absorbed by other objects, causing a loss of potential energy.
This blog post aims at explaining the various forms of energy that the sun produces and how they are generated. The information presented here will help you fully understand how important and impactful the sun really is. So, let’s dive in.
When we think about the sun, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the visible changes that the sun undergoes as it travels across the sky from sunrise to sunset. From a hot, bright ball of light to a cold, dim ember, the sun seems to put on a beautiful performance as the day goes by. This is largely due to the fact that the sun’s energy is highly transformable. When the sun interacts with objects on Earth, it loses a small portion of its mass and gains an equal amount of kinetic energy.
This energy is present in the sun even when it is stationary. While the sun’s total energy does not change, the amount of kinetic energy does. When the sun is at rest, it has 100% of its total mass but only a small portion of its kinetic energy. As a result, when the sun is at rest, it is said to be at relative rest or absolute rest compared to other objects. The more massive an object is, the more kinetic energy it holds. The sun is a massive object with a mass of about 600 million million tons. That’s a lot of energy!
The sun is a great source of thermal energy, which simply means the energy that the sun gives off as heat.
Since the sun is such a huge object, it keeps its thermal energy for a very long time. As the sun travels across the sky, it gives off enough heat to maintain the Earth’s temperature. The amount of energy that the sun gives off as heat is referred to as solar radiation, and it is measured in watts (W). One Watt is enough energy to heat a gallon of water by one degree Fahrenheit.
Keep in mind that the sun’s temperature can vary from thousands of degrees to millions of degrees Fahrenheit. This extreme heat causes significant changes to the makeup of the atoms in the sun. As a result, some elements are created and others are destroyed. For example, helium is a common byproduct of the sun’s heat and light. The helium that we breathe every day was once part of the sun!
When light strikes an object, it often takes the form of waves or pulses of energy. When these waves or pulses of energy travel through a circuit, they cause electrical current to flow. The amount of electricity that flows is proportional to the intensity of the light. The more intensely bright the light, the more electricity flows. Similarly, the less bright the light, the less electricity flows.
Some people even call this type of energy photovoltaic or solar power. While this is usually the case in our solar system, electrical energy is also generated when particles from the sun collide with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The result is the formation of positively charged ions and negatively charged atoms, which are then drawn toward the surface by winds.
The way sunlight interacts with the Earth determines not only the source of our energy but also its distribution. The most common type of solar power plant converts sunlight directly into electrical current with panels made of crystalline silicon. However, plants that use this method are limited to locations with abundant sunshine, otherwise they suffer from low conversion efficiency. What’s more, even when the location is sunny, the panels still need to be cleaned regularly to keep the efficiency at a high level.
The next big advance in solar power came with the use of photovoltaic cells, otherwise known as solar panels. These are thin, flexible films made of silicon or other materials that are able to convert light into electricity. When sunlight hits the surface of the panel, the impact causes tiny silicon atoms to vibrate and generate electricity. As a result, solar panels can be deployed anywhere and do not require direct sunlight to function. While cleaning them is still necessary to keep the efficiency at a high level, this can be easily done with a simple brush and some water.
This type of energy is present in all areas where there is still more than one object. When an object gains a portion of its mass but does not lose any kinetic or thermal energy, it has potential energy. This energy is the difference between the mass of the initial object and the mass of the final object. The more massive the object, the more potential energy it holds. The Earth, for example, has a mass of about 5.9 billion million tons, while its mass has decreased by 4.8 billion million tons since its formation. This is an example of a massive object that has lost a significant amount of its potential energy.
As we have discussed so far, when the sun shines on the Earth, it provides us with enough energy to sustain life. However, if we look at the Earth’s natural satellite, we see that a significant portion of the sun’s light is actually reflected back into space. This is largely due to the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere allows some of the sun’s energy to pass through to space, causing the temperature of the planet to drop. While there is still more than enough energy for the Earth to sustain life, the atmosphere also plays a role in the redistribution of that energy. Some sources state that up to 90% of the sun’s energy may be reflected back into space. This is a significant amount of energy that we are unable to utilize!
What we need to keep in mind is that all of this information about the different forms of energy that the sun produces is not meant to scare us but instead empower us to better understand the source of our power and how to properly take care of it.