(Lansing State Journal, May 28, 1997)
The sun is a powerful energy source. It is made up of hydrogen gas, and it converts the hydrogen into helium. As a result of this conversion process, nuclear energy is released into space. This energy travels through space in the form of waves. We experience these "energy waves" in two different ways. We either see the waves as light rays or we feel them as heat rays.
The Earth uses the energy in these rays in two different ways. The most common use is the storage and collection of heat. A solar panel can convert sunlight into heat. The bottom of solar panels are black so that they can absorb as much heat as possible. A glass covered water pipe then coils up along the side of the solar panel. When it is sunny, the water in the pipe is heated and this hot water can then be stored in a tank underneath the house.
Another use for solar energy is the conversion of sunlight into electricity. Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. These cells are usually made out of silicon which is commonly found in sand. When sunlight hits a solar cell it frees electrons from silicon atoms, and these electrons flow away. Since electricity is really the flow of electrons from one location to another, each solar cell produces a small amount of electricity.
Solar energy is now used in a variety of ways. Calculators and watches often run on solar cells, and bigger solar cells have been used to provide power for solar cars.