The Power of the Sun

Jacqueline Mullin

The importance of sunlight to the existence and survival of plant, animal and human life on Earth is irrefutable. Thus endless hours of research have been and continue to be invested in the quest to gain an understanding of the structure of the sun, the process by which it produces and extends it’s energy to Earth, as well as how we can harness this resource.

The centre of the sun is made up of the core. Fraser Cain, a writer with Universe Today explains that the sun’s energy is produced within its core but that the make up of the additional layers – the Radiative Zone, the Convective Zone and Photosphere, all work together to transfer the sun’s energy from the core outward. “The energy emitted from the photosphere then propagates through space and reaches Earth’s atmosphere and other planets of the solar system. Here on Earth, the upper layer of the atmosphere (the ozone layer) filters much of the sun’s ultra-violet (UV) radiation, but passes some onto the surface.” What is passed to the surface heats our plant and gives us life.

It is this life source that caused University of Copenhagen Professor Claus Felby, who is the head researcher in a study on the power of the sun, to call their discovery, “reverse photosynthesis”, a game changer. He has stated that it could “transform the industrial production of fuels and chemicals, thus serving to reduce pollution significantly”.

In a report published in Nature Communications, Felby and his colleagues discuss how it may be possible to use energy from the sun to break down plant matter, releasing chemical substances. Researcher Klaus Benedikt Møllers, a Postdoc involved in the research explains that the natural process, “reverse photosynthesis” involves enzymes using “atmospheric oxygen and the Sun’s rays to break down and transform carbon bonds, in plants among other things, instead of building plants and producing oxygen as is typically understood with photosynthesis”.

The practical implications of the discovery are unknown but David Cannella, a researcher and Postdoc involved in the discovery suggests that “the discovery means that by using the Sun, we can produce biofuels and biochemical for things like plastics – faster, at lower temperatures and with enhanced energy-efficiency.” A reduction in processing times could equal a drastic reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created through current processing methods.