Energy from the Skies: Empowering Future Generations: From the Beginning of Civilization, Humans Have Been Experimenting with the Power of the Sun

By Katsioloudis, Petros J.; Bondi, Stella et al. | The Technology Teacher, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Energy from the Skies: Empowering Future Generations: From the Beginning of Civilization, Humans Have Been Experimenting with the Power of the Sun


Katsioloudis, Petros J., Bondi, Stella, Deal, Walter F., The Technology Teacher


A majority of companies around the world are riding the renewable energy wave. In Memphis, TN, the electronics company Sharp retooled an old plant to become the largest U.S. producer of solar panels. In 2010, Infinia will begin repurposing idled auto assembly plants to make solar dishes that can be "stamped out like a Chevy and installed like a Maytag," according to CEO J. D. Sitton (Solutions, 2009). Solar thermal applications have been acknowledged among the leading alternative solutions endeavoring to face the uncontrollable oil price variations, the gradual depletion of fossil fuel reserves, and the chain of environmental consequences caused by excessive usage (Kavadias et al., 2004).

From the beginning of civilization, humans have been experimenting with the power of the sun. Evidence has been found that people may have been burning ants with magnifying glasses as early as the seventh century BC (Kavadias et al., 2004). The first account of the use of solar power during war in western civilization was in the second century BC during the battle of Syracuse with Archimedes' famed Death Ray. Solar energy was used for various purposes, from igniting fire for religious reasons to heating Roman bathhouses to warming Native American Adobes. People have always pondered solar power's technical evolution, but some major progress was achieved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure is credited with making the first solar collector in 1767, the first person to patent solar thermal electric technology to produce power from the sun's thermal energy was Robert Sterling in 1816 in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1839, Edmond Becquerel discovered that exposure to sunlight increased the energy generation of metal electrodes placed in electricity-conducting solution, also known as photovoltaic effect (U.S. Department of Energy, 2008). Photovoltaics (PV) are the conversion of solar radiation into electrical energy.

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In the late 1800s and early 1900s many advances occurred with regard to the Industrial Age. Innovations included the invention of solar-powered engines, the discovery of the photoconductivity of selenium and its ability to produce electricity when exposed to light, and the construction of the first solar cells from selenium wafers. Other important milestones of that time included the discovery that the lowest voltage capable of causing a spark to jump between two electrodes was affected by ultraviolet light, the advent of the first commercial solar water heater, and the discovery of additional photosensitive materials (U.S. Department of Energy, 2008). According to Swanson (2008), the first phase of solar power began with the creation of single crystal, single-layer junction diode silicon wafer on solar cells. These solar cells proved to be the start of an emerging sustainable power generation. The unlimited supply of energy from the sun, along with minimal emissions and negligible environmental impacts, makes photovoltaics an ideal choice. A direct relationship between energy consumption and solar energy production is in place. In countries like Cyprus and Israel, where annual temperatures are relatively high, electricity use is dominated by air conditioning. The abundance of solar radiation, together with a good technological base, has created favorable conditions for the exploitation of solar energy on the island of Cyprus. This has led to the development of a pioneering solar-collector industry, which in the mid-1980s was flourishing and resulted in outstanding installed solar collector area per inhabitant ratios (Kalogirou et al., 2006). Nowadays, Cyprus is cited as the country with the highest solar collector area installed per inhabitant worldwide (Kalogirou et al., 2006). A positive correlation, therefore, between sun intensity and electricity production, is needed to satisfy energy needs. Solar panels produce more electricity and are more efficient when sun intensity is high and can therefore provide a solution to the energy problem. …

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