The Power of the Sun, in The Palm of our Hands

By Pranav Vetrichelvan

What is the most important factor in humanity’s success? Our intelligence? Our environment? No, it’s the giant star in the sky, our sun. That flaming ball of reactions upon reactions feed this world everything it needs for growth, it is the centre of life itself, and humanity’s goal is to harness that for ourselves, to crown ourselves the kings and queens of life itself. And to finally solve most problems on the green planet we call home. But firstly, how does the sun work? How have we harnessed it already, and what would we do in the future? Even though right now, more than ever, we require clean renewable energy, is it even worth it?

Before we tackle how the sun could help us, we first need to understand how it works. The sun, to put it simply, is made of 3 parts. The core in the centre, the radiative zone in the middle, and the convective zone as the outer layer.

The core is a nuclear reactor, combining two protons into a deuterium hydrogen atom, a positron (similar to an electron, but positive), and a neutrino (minuscule neutral particle). Then a proton combines with the deuterium atom to create Helium-3 ( 2 protons 1 neutron), and a gamma ray, which is the most dangerous form of electromagnetic radiation. Finally, 2 Helium-3 atoms combine to make a Helium-4 atom with 2 protons to spare. Amounting to 85% of the sun’s energy. The remaining 15% comes from 3 reactions, Helium-3 and Helium-4 combining to make beryllium-7 and a gamma ray, beryllium-7 gaining an electron to become lithium-7 and a neutrino, lithium-7 combing with a proton to become 2 helium-4 atoms. The Helium-4 atom is smaller than the original hydrogen atoms, as the missing mass was turned into the energy that reaches us today.(Layton & Freudenrich, 2022)

The radiative zone is 45% of the sun’s radius, and in that massive distance, the energy that the core produces is carried out on the backs of photons, not one, not two, but approximately 1025 photons(Layton & Freudenrich, 2022). The energy from one photon gets absorbed by a gas molecule, and then a photon exactly like the one absorbed gets emitted, travelling one micron(one millionth of a meter), and being absorbed once again. Because of this time-consuming process, and the massive amount of photons being absorbed and re-emitted, it takes approximately 100,000–200,000 years for a photon to reach the surface after being created by the core.(Layton & Freudenrich, 2022)

The last layer is the convection zone, which amounts to 30% of the sun’s radius. As the name implies it is made up of convection currents. Hot gas rises, cold gas falls, in the sun it’s the same, gas with energy rises, gas without, falls. This is exponentially faster than the slow process of the radiative zone.

Mind you this is happening naturally, whereas here on earth we have barely managed to complete nuclear fusion, and this is an energy deficit, spending more energy than we receive. And to this day, we still haven’t managed to fully recreate perfect nuclear fusion, which is why we have the second-best thing, harnessing the energy that we do get from the sun.

Right now, we can absorb a fraction of the sun’s energy through solar panels, and we haven’t even maximized the amount of solar energy we can get. Not everyone has a solar panel, and even though we only absorb at max 20% of sunlight (Sunrun Team, 2021) in a commercial solar panel. But even that makes you think, what we could do with 50% efficiency, or even 100%. Just 20% efficiency is enough to power 3.6% of the world(Solarpv, 2021). There were 92.7 billion solar panels last year (Sunbadger, 2021), and it takes 20–25 solar panels to power the average home (azteksolar, 2021). Solar produces 1,032 Terawatt hours(trillion watts/hour), and that’s with a 20% efficiency rate, and being third when it comes to renewable energy, after wind and hydro.

But what if we could use 100% of the energy we have on Earth, what if we could harness the sun itself.

That’s where Dyson Spheres come in. A megastructure straight out of science fiction, first proposed by astronomer Freeman Dyson. Immediately becoming an Icon of futuristic civilizations, and eventually becoming synonymous with a type 2 civilization from the Kardashev Scale (Creighton,2014). The Kardashev Scale was originally suggested by Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev, with 3 types, with types 4 and 5 being added on later. But what is it? The Kardashev Scale defines civilization into 1 of 5 types, Type 1 having the energy of 1016W at their disposal, Type 2 with 1026W, Type 3 with 1036W, Type 4 with 1046W, and Type 5 having all the energy within every universe, and every timeline at their disposal. Humans right now, are type 0, after all we still use non-renewable energy to fuel our planet, and it’s thought that we’ll reach Type 1 in 100–200 years (Creighton,2014). But in layman’s terms,

Type 1 has control over everything within our planet, we would be able to control all natural phenomena on our planets, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, all within our grasp.To get there, we need to boost our energy production by over 100,000 times.

Type 2 pushes this idea to the Solar System, being able to truly utilize everything within the area, having enough energy to vaporize the moon itself if we wanted to, being able to push planets. The source of this tremendous energy would either be the sun confined within a Dyson Sphere, or a massive nuclear fusion reactor sucking the gas out of our nearby gas giants, creating the energy necessary for our advancement as a race.

Type 3 has complete control over everything to do with energy within the galaxy. At this point, they might not even be fully human anymore, possibly cyborgs, maybe even living inside massive black holes.(Creighton,2014)

Kardashev never thought that type 4 civilizations could exist, believing that type 3 was as advanced as it could get, but modern astronomers believe that if there is to be a type 4 civilization, they would control the galaxy itself. Type 4 would almost be able to harness all of the energy in the universe itself.

This is all theoretical, but Type 5 would be the pinnacle of everything. Gods amongst the universes, manipulating the universes as they please.

But that’s the theoretical future, millennia past. Right now, the most we can understand is a Type 2 civilization, and the most popular version of it is a civilization built upon the energy received from a Dyson Sphere, surrounding the sun itself, and utilizing all of that energy to power our civilization within the solar system.

Dyson Spheres have had more than a couple forms. The first of which is a sphere of solar panels, completely enclosing the sun. Although this is the first to come to most people’s minds when it comes to utilizing the sun. It’s also extremely tough to plan out. Needing the materials to be stronger than anything we have right now to not break down, and light enough to be able to be carried directly to the sun. It also has to be perfectly balanced, as if it’s moved a tiny amount, it would be drawn into the sun by its gravity. Another version is a Dyson swarm, acting as a net, rather than a shell. Whether it be composed of purely solar panels, who knows? There are a multitude of methods, all out of reach. It could be solar panels, or, more plausible, a swarm of lightweight mirrors, nothing more than a sheet of metal on a frame, reflecting the light onto small banks of energy, absorbing the reflected light, and storing it for later use(Kurzgesagt,2018).

But would it even be beneficial to us as a race? As of right now, we have more than enough problems, and that’s without the power to shape our world as we please. To build a Dyson Sphere, we have to be at least Type 2. The power to control the world, wars would be fought over this ability, it would control humanity, a puppet on strings. If we could cooperate to reach Type 2 it would be incredible, but if we can’t decide whether we want to help each other or massacre the entire race I think it’ll be a long time before anything concrete is formed. Even when only considering the aftermath of discovering this power, I haven’t talked about the people that would be affected.

1.2 billion people live in poverty right now (United Nations Development Programme, 2022), if we transferred all the money we are spending for space travel right now, how many people do you think we could save? 50%? 90%? All of them? If we do everything right, we could end poverty, as soon as 2030, if all goes right. Imagine this situation, on the scale of a solar system, hopefully we’ll end poverty by the time we can build a Dyson Sphere, but in the worst case scenario, there will still be some people living in the bottom few percent of the world. That’s only with two variables, world superpowers fighting for dominance, and poverty, what about our planet? What about resources? We can mine nearby planets and asteroids but that costs more time and money than we can hope to imagine. Taking down planets upon planets, asteroids upon asteroids, to build a singular structure that would help us live better? When we reach that point, we would be able to fuel our planet indefinitely, and it would solve all our problems, food, energy, poverty. We would no longer be constrained by the horrible things we have done. We would be able to create a habitable planet that represents heaven on earth. But there are too many “What if’s”. For the future is a dream, but the present is right here, right now, and even without the powers of mankind’s wildest imagination, we can make this planet better, bit by bit.