The Past, Present, and Future of Solar Energy

An Introduction to Solar Energy

Credit australiansolarquotes.au

Solar Fuel

For a fuel cell to work, electrons from hydrogen in the fuel flow through the system, creating a current.

Artifical Photosynthesis

Natural Photosynthesis turns CO2 and H2O into sugars, with the help of sunlight. This process can possibly be replicated, turning a greenhouse gas into a fuel. Plants utilize a chloroplast, which functions as a light absorber (turning light into energy) and a catalyst to break down CO2. Currently, the main method of artificial photosynthesis is utilizing electrolysis on CO2 and H2O to get CO and Hydrogen, and then turned into an alcohol with the help of bacteria, creating a fuel. These fuels have the potential to be very efficient, with a possible cost of $1 a gallon, creating a cheaper fuel than gasoline.

Energy Storage

One of the largest problems in energy is storage itself. An efficient, cheap, and space consistent solution is hard to come by. Here are the main problems with the current solutions:

  • The flywheel: Excess energy is transformed into rotational energy to move a flywheel, and the energy can then be used when needed, slowing down the wheel. It’s a fairly quick and safe system at nearly any size, but the size itself is the issue. Since the electrical energy transforms into rotational energy, more energy storage means a larger or faster wheel, putting stress on resources. It is also not an effective large scale energy storage option.
  • Batteries: Batteries function through an exchange of electrons. This flow of electrons creates a current, which can power any resistor. For rechargeable batteries, electricity from an outside source can reverse the process. The main problems with batteries has consistently been the environment; battery acid along with lithium mining isn’t an environmentally conscious option.
  • Compressed Air Storage: Air is compressed into a massive cavern, and when needed, the air can be expanded to push a turbine to get electrical energy. The main problem with this is the requirement of a cavern, or at least some hole large enough to store the air. This can work wonders for recycling old mining sites, but it still requires a large spatial capacity.
  • Pumped Storage: Two main reservoirs at different heights are utilized; when there is a large energy surplus, water is pumped up the reservoir, and when there is a energy demand, the water is pumped down, and the gravitational energy turns into kinetic energy that can be captured. The main issue is space once again; this only works if two reservoirs can be built/exist in a large space.

Blockers

The main problem with solar energy is consistency. Fossil fuels can be stored and burned whenever needed, going with demand, but solar energy has the perils of clouds, rain, and other physical blockers. Energy storage is key, but there are a plethora of problems with energy storage. Resources to create these solar farms are also a problem, both in land and in creation. Solar panels require arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, and tellurium, all elements that require extensive mining. Placing these panels also takes up land, which is an ever scarce resource. The cost for a scale farm is around $1 for every watthour, which means that a plant that produces a GhW takes around 2.8 acres of land. Solar energy is by no means a perfect technology yet, but there is hope for improvement.

Solar Energy in 20 years

Solar energy is guaranteed to improve in the next 20 years. Designs that capture more heat, get more light, and require fewer resources will come to market. Two main methods are currently being tested out: One, adding on to existing solar technology, and two, creating new solar technologies. An issue with solar panels is that they don’t capture all possible energy as they are stationary, which could be solved with a device to rotate solar panels to the power of the sun. New solar technologies could involve thinner ‘sheets’ of solar panels producing better results, quantum dots, and possibly even solar panels in previously restricted regions.

Conclusion

Solar energy could provide the world with energy for the rest of humanity’s lifetime, but there are still major issues with energy consistency. It cannot hold every burden of energy right now, but it may be able to in the future.

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Aniket Majumder

Aniket Majumder

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I’m Aniket, and I’m interested in how we can make humans fundamentally better through better disease prevention and innovation.