Our Solar Energy History

Our Solar Energy History


Auguste Mouchout

Perhaps hard to believe, in light of our current environmental concerns and worries over global warming, but our solar energy history stretches back many centuries to when man first used a piece of glass and the sun to start a fire to keep warm and to cook with.

That primitive fire all those centuries ago has given birth to what we now understand and class as solar energy. Our advanced and ever-developing solar systems of today are quite different from a hundred years ago when that primitive fire aside, many recognize the beginnings of modern-day solar energy.

Indeed our modern-day solar energy history dates back as far as the mid-1800s when far-sighted scientists and engineers began writing about how to turn light into energy. However, not much was done about actually putting these writings into practice until a French man, Auguste Mouchout, patented the first design to run a motor from solar energy.

Moving onto the 1870s when a British man, Willoughby Smith, began experimenting with what could be classed as the first solar cells. However, it was William Adams and his use of mirrors who really made a leap. He was able to power a steam engine of 2.5 horsepower and to this day, his groundbreaking achievement, known as the Power Tower, is still used.

(mysterious-higher education The sun has sustained the earth, and fascinated humans since the beginning of time. And as our understanding of physics, and our space technology have advanced, so too, have scientists tried to tackle more questions about the sun, and its effects on the earth. On baffling matter has to do with the temperature just outside the sun’s surface. – It’s a long-standing mystery in plasma astrophysics, at how you create a very hot corona, millions of degrees corona, from a cool star.

Many of us know that the sun’s corona, its atmosphere, is extremely hot.

But maybe what’s not so commonly known is that the actual surface of the sun is surprisingly much cooler than the corona. – higher education To really understand the plasma physics behind this, we have to go there directly, and make measurements, and that’s the mission of the Solar Probe. – higher education Launched in 2018, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft has now traveled closer to the sun than any other mission in history, actually penetrating the sun’s atmosphere, to investigate its highly charged magnetic field. – higher education Here at Berkeley, we have the lead responsibility for one of the instrument suits, and we have a major role in one of the other instrument suits as well. We designed, we built, and we operate the bulk of the instrumentation on the spacecraft.

– higher education those instruments are measuring the properties of the solar wind, that rush of electrified particles the magnetic field continually pushes out towards the earth. Understanding the solar wind could inform the key question of the hot corona, and also help us prepare for major disruptions the wind can cause to our spacecraft, satellite communications, and the safety of our astronauts.

Named after Eugene Parker, who developed the solar wind theory, the probe has already sent back many interesting measurements. – higher education The first three encounters of Solar Probe that we’ve had so far has been spectacular. We can see the magnetic structure of the corona, which is an important thing, it tells us where the solar wind is emerging from.

We see impulsive activity, large, what we call jets, or switchbacks, which we think are related to the origin of the solar wind. – higher education The probe also captured information about solar dust, tiny remnants of disintegrated comets or asteroids. – higher education We’re able to measure dust impacts on the spacecraft, and we’re surprised at the kind of ferocity of the dust environment in the inner heliosphere. – higher education Built with the most sophisticated heat protecting shields of any other spacecraft, the probe stays cool with a novel water circulation system that captures and expels the heat into space. It’s also the fastest spacecraft in history.

At 430,000 miles per hour, it could take you from New York to Tokyo in less than a minute.

But it’s clear that the best thing about the mission is all the new knowledge it’s generating. – We’ve been working essentially around the clock, for a decade on this thing. And so to see this data, it’s just a pleasure. I mean the data is so spectacular.

It’s a big case of delayed gratification, but it’s really terrific stuff. I think we’re on the cusp of being able to answer the question of what heats the solar wind.

What we learn from our solar energy history, is that throughout, and despite the continued advancements with solar energy, solar energy never really took off in a big way. Despite government and even royal backing at various points in history, solar energy had many false starts. At one point, the price of coal dropped and the attention of the great and the good moved away from solar energy and back to non-renewable fuels. However, it’s true to say that even as far back as the 1800s there were some who fully understood that our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels was an environmentally bad idea and they kept on making advancements in utilizing solar energy.

Fast forward wot the 1950s and Bell Labs made one of the big breakthroughs when they discovered that silicon was a great product that could be used as a conductor to create a chemical reaction when light and heat from the sun shone on it. Basically, the solar cell was born. That discovery is the technology that we use today for creating what we know as solar panels.

Solar panels on the tops of roofs are now regular sights in some parts of the world, however as our solar energy history shows us, there is always more we could do to make use of perhaps our biggest asset.

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