Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society

The Power of the Sun's Engines

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

Here on Earth, the sun provides us with the vast majority of our energy, striking the top of the atmosphere with up to 1,000 Watts of power per square meter, albeit highly dependent on the sunlight's angle-of-incidence. But remember that the sun is a whopping 150 million kilometers away, and sends an equal amount of radiation in all directions; the Earth-facing direction is nothing special. Even considering sunspots, solar flares, and long-and-short term variations in solar irradiance, the sun's energy output is always constant to about one-part-in-1,000. All told, our parent star consistently outputs an estimated 4 × 1026 Watts of power; one second of the sun's emissions could power all the world's energy needs for over 700,000 years.

Image credit: composite of 25 images of the sun, showing solar outburst/activity over a 365 day period; NASA / Solar Dynamics Observatory / Atmospheric Imaging Assembly / S. Wiessinger; post-processing by E. Siegel.

That's a literally astronomical amount of energy, and it comes about thanks to the hugeness of the sun. With a radius of 700,000 kilometers, it would take 109 Earths, lined up from end-to-end, just to go across the diameter of the sun once. Unlike our Earth, however, the sun is made up of around 70% hydrogen by mass, and it's the individual protons — or the nuclei of hydrogen atoms — that fuse together, eventually becoming helium-4 and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. All told, for every four protons that wind up becoming helium-4, a tiny bit of mass — just 0.7% of the original amount — gets converted into energy by E=mc2, and that's where the sun's power originates.

You'd be correct in thinking that fusing ~4 × 1038 protons-per-second gives off a tremendous amount of energy, but remember that nuclear fusion occurs in a huge region of the sun: about the innermost quarter (in radius) is where 99% of it is actively taking place. So there might be 4 × 1026 Watts of power put out, but that's spread out over 2.2 × 1025 cubic meters, meaning the sun's energy output per-unit-volume is just 18 W / m3. Compare this to the average human being, whose basal metabolic rate is equivalent to around 100 Watts, yet takes up just 0.06 cubic meters of space. In other words, you emit 100 times as much energy-per-unit-volume as the sun! It's only because the sun is so large and massive that its power is so great.

It's this slow process, releasing huge amounts of energy per reaction over an incredibly large volume, that has powered life on our world throughout its entire history. It may not appear so impressive if you look at just a tiny region, but — at least for our sun — that huge size really adds up!

Check out these “10 Need-to-Know Things About the Sun”.