The Least Efficient Form of Solar Energy (Illustration Friday: Fuel)

© 2011 Sylvia Liu
(click on the image to enlarge)

Almost every fuel we use or consume is a form of solar energy. Some captured the sun's energy hundreds of millions of years ago (fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal). Some indirectly reflect the sun's effects on weather and water systems (wind and hydropower). Some directly tap the sun's energy (solar power). Even the foods we consume either directly transformed solar power (plants) or indirectly did so through the food chain (animals). 

Every hour, the sun floods the earth with more energy than the human population can use in a year. Wouldn't it be great if we could use our collective ingenuity to capture some of that directly instead of relying on Paleozoic algae and plankton? A recent Scientific American article, "Making Solar Panels as Ubiquitous and Efficient as Leaves," argues that we need to imitate the leaf, the ultimate inexpensive solar panel.

Can you think of any fuels that are not ultimately solar powered? Maybe nuclear power?

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