California. The Golden State. Home to the Warriors, Silicon Valley, and more professional sports teams than any other state. The world’s most powerful laser and longest-burning light bulb reside in the same small town. We have a reputation for frequent earthquakes. We house all the stars in Hollywood. And we have an abundance of energy from a star more important than any actor or singer: the Sun.
Solar energy is an abundant, renewable resource, and we happen to have plenty of it here. But when you think solar power, the first image that forms in most people’s minds is one of black rectangles arranged on a roof. But solar power is so much more than that, and has a longer history than you may realize. Let’s explore.
Solar Power Is Older Than The Dakotas
Back in 1866, a guy named Augustin Mouchot came up with a device to demonstrate solar heating of water to Emperor Napoleon III of France. It was displayed in Paris until the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, when it disappeared. Mouchot was determined, and claimed he could make more and more powerful solar steam engines. In 1875, he showed up at France’s Academy of Sciences with a solar-powered steam engine that he claimed could make steam flow at 140 liters per minute.
Unfortunately, Mouchot’s work was cut short by a trade treaty with Great Britain that allowed plentiful, cheap coal to be brought into France. This undermined a need for his research. Mouchot was recognized for his inventive work, but returned to teaching. Meanwhile, North Dakota wasn’t a U.S. State until 1889.
It doesn’t stop there. Solar power has been used for cooking since Arab alchemists came up with the idea in the 16th century AD.
Salt Can Store Solar Energy
Certain salts can be used to store solar energy. By using mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a concentrated space, it’s possible to use sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, and calcium nitrate to store that energy as heat (up to 1,051 degrees Fahrenheit!) to be stored in a well-insulated tank that keeps the heat up for up to a week.
You Can Combine Solar and Hydroelectric Power for Long Term Storage
We’ve already mentioned a few ways of storing the heat from sunlight, and most people know about photovoltaic panels instantly converting sunlight into electricity, but what about longer-term storage?
As it turns out, it’s simple. You can use these methods to power pumps to transport water to a higher elevation for storage, and then simply release the water into a hydroelectric generation system. In other words, you don’t need the rain to get water uphill of your dam. A bonus to this is that it’s a nearly 100% efficient energy storage system, because so little is lost in translation.
You Can Make Combustible Fuel With It!
Wait, what? How?
When I was in my freshman year of high school, my science teacher Mr. Hale taught my class about a thing called water electrolysis. Basically, you take a body of water, you put it into an apparatus with two openings, and you run an electrical current through it. This separates the water molecule, H2O, into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen, and they leave the apparatus in separate tubes. A match was lit. When inserted into one tube, the match burned brighter, which informed us that the tube was rich in oxygen. When the match was inserted into the other tube, BOOM! The hydrogen combusted so rapidly, it sounded like a cannon being fired.
Although relatively inefficient, one of the major benefits of using hydrogen as a combustible fuel source is that implementation operates on the same basic principle as an ordinary gasoline engine. Combustion inside of a limiting medium (such as an engine cylinder) equals directed expansion. Combine this with a piston, and you wind up with a system just like the car you drive now. This means you don’t really need to change much when designing a hydrogen powered vehicle. As a matter of fact, several major automakers already offer hydrogen powered cars in select markets as we speak!
As of this writing, technology is being developed to reduce reliance on natural gas for hydrogen production, with water electrolysis from wind power or photovoltaic power being the most sustainable options. Be on the lookout in the next several years to see how this technology develops!
You Can Cook With It!
That’s right. And people have been doing it for centuries.
Like mentioned above, concentrated sunlight energy is incredibly powerful. So when you reflect a bunch of mirrors onto the same space, or use a lens to focus light from a large area onto a smaller point (like the sadistic kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass), the solar energy raises the temperature drastically. A quick Google search reveals that options for purchasing solar cookers can range in price from $59 to hundreds of dollars, and come in several different styles.