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  • Tony Pappas

Let's Have Some Fun in the Sun

We at the Solar Initiative hope that this series of columns has convinced you to at least consider installing a solar system at your home. It is a big step with financial and ecological ramifications, heavy stuff. So while you are deliberating, take a moment to look at the light side.

Fun facts about the sun:

• Our sun comprises 99.8 percent of the mass of our solar system.

• It would take 1.3 million earths to fill the volume of the sun.

• The sun’s surface temperature is 10,000 degrees F, and that’s the coolest part.

• Our sun is considered young at 4.6 billion years old.

• Scientists think there are five billion more years of fuel left in the old girl.

• So it will go from being a yellow dwarf as it is currently, to becoming a red giant and then a white dwarf and then a black dwarf. Mercifully, we won’t be around to witness that.

• The sun’s energy is equal to the explosion of 100 billion tons of dynamite per second.

• And all this energy comes from nuclear fusion; two hydrogen atoms fusing to form one helium atom deep down in the depths of the sun’s core. All this fusing produces 384.6 septillion (technical scientific term meaning 10 to the 26th power) watts of energy per second.

• Meanwhile, the earth blissfully continues her orbit 93 million miles away. And you and I blissfully tan ourselves or pray for rain.

So, you ask, “Wow, all that energy. How does it get to earth?”

Great question. I’m glad you asked. Here’s the scoop:

When two hydrogen atoms decide it is time to merge into a helium atom, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. That’s right. One plus one does not quite add up to two in solar mathematics. The helium atom has slightly less mass than the two hydrogens that produced it. What happens to the missing mass? Well, remember E(instein)=mc2? Yep, that’s right, it is emitted as energy. We call this chunk of energy a photon.

A photon has an interesting life story. After being born in the center of the sun, it seeks to leave the nest and go out on its own, maybe someplace cool. So it tries to work its way to the sun’s surface. But it is a long way and there is no direct path. If our favorite photon is extroverted and gregarious, it will take a few million years to say goodbye to all its elemental relatives between the core and the surface. However, if it is introverted and shy, it can bypass all those long goodbyes and get to the surface in “only” a few thousand years. You might think that by then it would be too pooped to want to go anywhere and it would just settle for being a sun spot or a solar plume. You might think that, but you would be wrong. It along with three or four hundred gazillion (technical scientific term which I just made up) photons radiate out from the sun in all directions. Including in our direction. And since we are 93 million miles away we don’t even get our fair share, but we get enough to power a solar array.

So what happens when a photon alights on earth? Well, it might hit a leaf and photosynthesize. Or it might hit the ocean and cause a rise in temperature. Or it might hit the magnifying glass in your seventh grade science experiment and cause your report card to burn. But the Solar Initiative doesn’t care that much about those poor photons. We care about the ones that hit a solar panel that we have cunningly put in its path. There it strikes a wafer made of (mostly) silicon and, being hit by our photon, causes so much excitement that the silicon spontaneously emits an electron. Now at the bottom of the solar panel is a little guy with an electron net who runs around and collects all these super enthusiastic electrons. (Just kidding, no little guy. Just a little technology that does the same thing.) Then all these electrons are channeled into your house’s electrical system. And when you switch on a light to read The Block Island Times, the electrons are converted back into photons. And there they die a meaningful death as they illuminate the room and allow you to expand your mind and catch up on the latest news. And so the photon life cycle is complete.

Moral: Don’t let these precious little photons die a meaningless death. Get a solar array and save them — and, by the way, our island and planet, too.

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