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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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How to Glow: the Very Simple Way of Energy Making

How to Glow: the Very Simple Way of Energy Making

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By Reilly Capps

 

[The sun is the reason we have Wendy's.]

 

Let's think about the universe for a second. (What else is there to think about?) 

In the universe, there are two kinds of things -- glowing things and not-glowing things. Earth is a not-glowing thing. It is, like other not-glowing things, made of rocks and ice and iron. But it's the only not-glowing thing we know about where things are alive, where beings live and breathe and eat tacos. 

The things that live and breathe, in order to live and breathe, need warmth. With warmth, blood can flow, water can mix with salt and make margaritas. Warmth comes in the form of sunlight. Sunlight comes from the sun. The sun is one of the universe's glowing things. It's warm.

Put your hand on a window on a sunny day. Feel the warmth. Feel the energy. It's why all animals are alive. Sunlight warms animals, gives them light to see, lets them make food. That's why you're alive. It may not seem like that. I live in a house and, most of the time, I keep the blinds closed. Warmth comes from my radiator. Light comes from the ceiling. Food comes from Wendy's. But all of that comes from the sun, the blessed sun, in one way or another, even Wendy's Junior Bacon Cheeseburger and its soft chewy bacon slices. 

Almost everything comes from photosynthesis. This is the process through which sunlight interacts with water to create energy. For 2.5 billion years, this is how life worked. Sun + water ---> energy. The sun, through photosynthesis, grew grass and kelp. Dinosaurs ate the grass and ate cavemen for dinner (I believe). Then, something interesting happened.

Those living things died and fell into the ground.Grass, kelp and dinosaurs fossilized and turned into gas -- this is what a fossil fuel is. This fossil fuel -- probably coal -- runs Wendy's, and gasoline runs the car I use to go through the drive-thru. But, stated another way, it's ancient sunlight, stored in the ground, that runs everything. Your Honda, your Wendy's, they all run on ancient sunlight. 

That ancient sunlight has let us build an incredible society. Ancient sunlight pours out of the pump. Do you know how much energy is in a barrel of oil, one barrel of concentrated ancient sunlight? A lot. An awful lot. One barrel of oil can do the same amount of work as 10 men, working eight hours a day, six days a week, can do in a year. The average American uses 23 barrels of oil. That means that the average American has the equivalent of 230 men working for them. Is it any wonder that we have skyscrapers and bridges and light shows and Wendy's? We have all this power, all this ancient sunlight, shooting up out of the ground. This is what built our concrete world. Our ability to unlock this ancient sunlight has been one of the greatest boons in history.*

Regardless: this ancient sunlight is running out. It will run out this century or next century or sometime.Before that happens, humans will have to go back to using sunlight as their main source of energy, or else we'll have to change the way we live. For the most part, we do use sunlight as our main source of energy. Our plants that feed us are powered by energy. 

But how do we power the rest of our lives with sunlight, just like we did for 2.5 billion years? 

The main way we do this is with solar panels. Solar panels mimics photosynthesis. New forms of photosynthesis simulations are being developed. These offer some of the most exciting advancements in science today. More on that in my next post. 

Thinking about our place in the universe, we know that the Earth is a not-glowing thing. To create the glowing things we have on earth -- light bulbs, TVs, your daughter's eyes -- we have to rely on the glowing thing nearby.

The sun will have to power us again. 

 

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