Matter & Energy


Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.

Indirect Collection of Solar Energy

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People can make indirect use of solar energy that has been naturally collected. Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and plant life, for example, collect solar energy that people later extract to power technology.

The Sun's energy, acting on the oceans and atmosphere, produces winds that for centuries have turned windmills and driven sailing ships (see Wind Energy). Modern windmills are strong, light, weather-resistant, aerodynamically designed machines that produce electricity when attached to generators.

Approximately 30 percent of the solar power reaching Earth is consumed by the continuous circulation of water, a system called the water cycle or hydrologic cycle. The Sun’s heat evaporates water from the oceans. Winds transport some of the water vapor from the oceans over the land where it falls as rain. Rainwater seeps into the ground or collects into streams or lakes and eventually returns to the ocean. Thus, radiant energy from the Sun is transformed to potential energy of water in streams and rivers. People can tap the power stored in the water cycle by directing these flowing waters through modern turbines. Power produced in this way is called hydroelectric power. See Waterpower; Dam.

The oceans also collect and store solar energy. A significant fraction of the Sun’s radiation reflects or scatters from the water’s surface. The remaining fraction enters the water and rapidly diminishes with depth as the energy is absorbed and converted to heat or chemical energy. This absorption creates differences in temperature between layers of water in the ocean called temperature gradients. In some locations, these differences approach 20°C (36°F) over a depth of a few hundred meters. These large masses of water existing at different temperatures create a potential for generating power. Energy flows from the high-temperature water to the low-temperature water (see Thermodynamics). The flow can be harnessed, to turn a turbine to produce electricity for example. Such systems, called ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) systems, require enormous heat exchangers and other hardware in the ocean to produce electricity in the megawatt range.

Plants, through photosynthesis, convert solar energy to chemical energy, which fuels plant growth. People, in turn, use this stored solar energy through fuels such as wood, alcohol, and methane that are extracted from the plant life (biomass). Fossil fuels such as oil and coal are derived from geologically ancient plant life. People also eat and digest plants, or animals fed on plants, to obtain energy for their bodies.