The science of alternative energy-Part I

The science of alternative energy-Part I

By Jeffrey Havens

The science of alternative energy-Part I

By Jeffrey Havens

Electrons, photons, and the expansion of the universe.

If you can remember these two particles and that

things tend to go from order to disorder, due to the

expansion of the universe, you will have gained a

great insight into the physical aspects of electrical

energy. These three factors are at the root of all

electrical phenomena, which is what alternative energy

is about—generation of energy to do work.

You may remember from physical science class that

nearly everything you see and don’t see is made up of

very tiny structures called “atoms.” The outer part of

every atom is enveloped by a negatively charged

particle called an electron. When electrons flow

through wire, like water through a hose, they travel

from a place that is ordered, which has an excess

number of electrons, to its destination, where there

are fewer electrons, which is disordered. Every

physical system in the universe ultimately changes

from an ordered system to a disordered system. With

that said, let’s meet the electron’s partner, the


In the 1930s and ’40s, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

teamed up for many great movies. Similarly, about that

same time, a new way to describe the electron and

photon team was developed by a physicist named Richard

Feynman. He called his description “path integrals,”

and it revolutionized how we view the interaction

between electrons and photons. Photons are very

interesting and peculiar, yet all matter share the

same attributes as the photon, which makes us peculiar,

too, some more than others. There are many types of

photons, or just one, depending on which physicist you

ask. If we go with the one photon theory, I suppose

it’s like the liquid metal guy in Terminator II who

morphs into different things depending on the

circumstances. Traditionally, we like to believe there

are lots of photons. The photons you are most familiar

with are of the visible light variety but sound, heat,

TV, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, ionizing radiation,

cell phones, and microwaves are all categories of

different types of photons that differ by wavelength,

energy, frequency, and amplitude. On the average, in

space, there are 400 million photons per cubic yard.

Teamed together, the electron and photon give us

lightning, electricity, and energy to run our

machines. Your body’s chemistry can be described by

electron-photon interactions, and so can alternative

energy products. Teamed together, they also give rise

to one of the four fundamental forces of the universe

known as the electromagnetic force.

In the 1800s, the first unified field theory was

published by James Clerk Maxwell in his treatise on

electricity and magnetism. What it described was that

two separate phenomena, electricity and magnetism, were

actually aspects of the same force—the electromagnetic

force. This work laid the foundation for others who

discovered that magnetism was really just spinning

electrons. They spin either clockwise or

counter-clockwise. However, because electrons are half

spin particles, the electron takes 720 degrees to

complete one revolution rather than the 360 degrees it

takes you and me to turn around once! Peculiar and

strange are the electrons and photons, indeed.

In addition to the electromagnetic force, the three

other forces of nature are gravity, and the two

nuclear forces—known as the strong and weak forces.

Gravity is what makes planets rotate around the sun.

Gravity was also the subject of physicist Albert

Einstein’s relativity theories. The strong nuclear

force binds the different type of quarks together that

constitute the protons and neutrons that make up the

nucleus of the atom. When neutrons decay into protons,

a process we call radioactive decay, it is the weak

nuclear force that governs the process that culminates

in the emission of a high-energy photon that is

commonly absorbed by a lead atom. So, whenever you

have an X-ray done at the dentist, they are allowing

some of these high-energy photons to travel through

your body. That lead apron they give you absorbs excess

photons so they don’t effect other tissues and organs

in your body. These high energy photons are also the

same ones that make nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

such a risk and possibly devastating.

Understanding electron-photon interactions and the

expansion of the universe goes a long way in

understanding the scientific phenomena behind

alternative energy. In Part II of this series, I will

try to describe the applied science behind the fuel


Jeff Havens is the physical sciences laboratory

manager at Rock Valley College. No rights reserved.

Share this information freely. An educated citizenry

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