Seeing the Light MAG

May 18, 2008
By Angela Woods, Carrollton, KY

As fossil fuels begin to wane, petroleum prices skyrocket, and pollution begets environmental hazards, the world increasingly relies on engineers to find safe, clean methods of generating energy. Energy is needed to heat buildings and water, cook food, fuel automobiles, produce light, and run computers. The world’s energy consumption has been predicted to increase by 57 percent between 2004 and 2030. Growing population, coupled with increasing dependence on energy, has outlined the path that engineers must pursue. The sun has illuminated that path; the lucid focus of engineers should be to harness that energy and improve methods of using it.

The availability of solar energy is ­immense compared with our energy needs. The total available to the earth is about 3,850 zettajoules per year. In 2004, worldwide energy consumption was 0.471 zettajoules. Even with the anticipated increase in usage, the amount of energy from the sun will continue to ­exceed greatly global need. Solar energy is free, abundant, and inexhaustible. Additionally, it produces no pollution. The combustion of fossil fuels gives rise to smog and contributes to global warming. Conversely, solar power has no negative environmental effects.

Developing solar energy technologies should be the focus of engineering. There are countless appli­cations spanning the commercial, industrial, agricultural, residential, and transportation sectors. The three categories of solar energy applications are heating/cooling, electricity production, and chemical processes. Solar energy can be used to heat ­buildings, water, and air. Solar thermal technologies can also be harnessed to drive chemical reactions, melt metals, cook food, distill water, and produce heat for drying food and clothes. Photovoltaic cells can generate electricity. Cars can exploit solar energy. Clearly, solar energy has the ­potential to fuel a wide variety of needs.

Critics may complain of the expense of solar ­power. However, due to economies of scale, solar panels are becoming cheaper as more people buy and use them. Also, a new “thin film” technology is being developed by the California company Nanosolar. “We aim to produce the panels for 99 cents a watt, which is comparable to the price of electricity generated from coal,” said Erik Oldekop, Nanosolar’s manager in Switzerland. If one considers the negative consequences of burning fossil fuels and rising petroleum prices, solar power is clearly a viable proposition.

Other detractors lament the huge amount of space necessary to capture adequate solar energy. Some critics point out that certain parts of the world are ­unsuitable for solar power generation and that it is (obviously) not available at night. How­ever, since sunlight is much more abundant in space than it is on Earth, solar power satellites could be placed in geostationary ­orbit. They would collect solar energy and convert it to electricity and then to microwaves. The microwaves would be sent through antennae that would reconvert it into electricity, which would be distributed to users. This system would eliminate ­the need for extensive land for solar panels, and it would improve the efficiency of solar power generation.

The “problems” with using solar power can easily be overcome if engineers concentrate their efforts on advancing solar technologies. They must focus on perfecting current solar technologies as well as ­developing new techniques to harness the sun’s ­power. The world is depending on the ingenious minds of engineers to master the use of this safe, clean energy source. We must lift our eyes to the sun for the world’s current and future energy needs.

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