How does the sun convert heat into electricity?

How does the sun convert heat into electricity?

What Is Solar Energy?

Solar energy is energy that comes from the sun. Every day the sun radiates, or sends out, an enormous amount of energy. The sun radiates more energy in one second than people have used since the beginning of time!

Where does all this energy come from? It comes from within the sun itself. Like other stars, the sun is a big gas ball made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. The sun generates energy in its core in a process called nuclear fusion. During nuclear fusion, the sun's extremely high pressure and hot temperature cause hydrogen atoms to come apart and their nuclei (the central cores of the atoms) to fuse or combine. Four hydrogen nuclei fuse to become one helium atom. But the helium atom weighs less than the four nuclei that combined to form it. Some matter is lost during nuclear fusion. The lost matter is emitted into space as radiant energy.

It takes millions of years for the energy in the sun's core to make its way to the solar surface, and then just a little over eight minutes to travel the 93 million miles to earth. The solar energy travels to the earth at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light.

Only a small portion of the energy radiated by the sun into space strikes the earth, one part in two billion. Yet this amount of energy is enormous. Every day enough energy strikes the United States to supply the nation's energy needs for one and a half years!

Where does all this energy go? About 15 percent of the sun's energy that hits the earth is reflected back into space. Another 30 percent is used to evaporate water, which, lifted into the atmosphere, produce's rain-fall. Solar energy also is absorbed by plants, the land, and the oceans. The rest could be used to supply our energy needs.

Where the work gets done

Solar radiation may be converted directly into electricity by solar cells (photovoltaic cells). In such cells, a small electric voltage is generated when light strikes the junction between a metal and a semiconductor (such as silicon) or the junction between two different semiconductors. The power generated by a single photovoltaic cell is typically only about two watts. By connecting large numbers of individual cells together, however, as in solar-panel arrays, hundreds or even thousands of kilowatts of electric power can be generated in a solar electric plant or in a large household array. The energy efficiency of most present-day photovoltaic cells is only about 15 to 20 percent, and, since the intensity of solar radiation is low to begin with, large and costly assemblies of such cells are required to produce even moderate amounts of power.

Solar energy is created by nuclear fusion that takes place in the sun. Fusion occurs when protons of hydrogen atoms violently collide in the sun’s core and fuse to create a helium atom.

This process, known as a PP (proton-proton) chain reaction, emits an enormous amount of energy. In its core, the sun fuses about 620 million metric tons of hydrogen every second. The PP chain reaction occurs in other stars that are about the size of our sun, and provides them with continuous energy and heat. The temperature for these stars is around 4 million degrees on the Kelvin scale (about 4 million degrees Celsius, 7 million degrees Fahrenheit).

In stars that are about 1.3 times bigger than the sun, the CNO cycle drives the creation of energy. The CNO cycle also converts hydrogen to helium, but relies on carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen (C, N, and O) to do so. Currently, less than 2% of the sun’s energy is created by the CNO cycle.

Nuclear fusion by the PP chain reaction or CNO cycle releases tremendous amounts of energy in the form of waves and particles. Solar energy is constantly flowing away from the sun and throughout the solar system. Solar energy warms the Earth, causes wind and weather, and sustains plant and animal life.

The energy, heat, and light from the sun flow away in the form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR).

The electromagnetic spectrum exists as waves of different frequencies and wavelengths. The frequency of a wave represents how many times the wave repeats itself in a certain unit of time. Waves with very short wavelengths repeat themselves several times in a given unit of time, so they are high-frequency. In contrast, low-frequency waves have much longer wavelengths.

The vast majority of electromagnetic waves are invisible to us. The most high-frequency waves emitted by the sun are gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet radiation (UV rays). The most harmful UV rays are almost completely absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. Less potent UV rays travel through the atmosphere, and can cause sunburn.

The sun also emits infrared radiation, whose waves are much lower-frequency. Most heat from the sun arrives as infrared energy.

Sandwiched between infrared and UV is the visible spectrum, which contains all the colors we see on Earth. The color red has the longest wavelengths (closest to infrared), and violet (closest to UV) the shortest.

Source: National Geographic - Link

Fast Fact!

Agua Caliente | The Agua Caliente Solar Project, in Yuma, Arizona, is the world's largest array of photovoltaic panels. Agua Caliente has more than 5 million photovoltaic modules, and generates more than 600 gigawatt-hours of electricity.

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