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Top Curr Chem. 2016;371:1-22. doi: 10.1007/128_2015_637.

Physical Limits of Solar Energy Conversion in the Earth System.

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Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry, Hans-Knoell-Str. 10, 07745, Jena, Germany.
Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry, Hans-Knoell-Str. 10, 07745, Jena, Germany.


Solar energy provides by far the greatest potential for energy generation among all forms of renewable energy. Yet, just as for any form of energy conversion, it is subject to physical limits. Here we review the physical limits that determine how much energy can potentially be generated out of sunlight using a combination of thermodynamics and observed climatic variables. We first explain how the first and second law of thermodynamics constrain energy conversions and thereby the generation of renewable energy, and how this applies to the conversions of solar radiation within the Earth system. These limits are applied to the conversion of direct and diffuse solar radiation - which relates to concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic (PV) technologies as well as biomass production or any other photochemical conversion - as well as solar radiative heating, which generates atmospheric motion and thus relates to wind power technologies. When these conversion limits are applied to observed data sets of solar radiation at the land surface, it is estimated that direct concentrated solar power has a potential on land of up to 11.6 PW (1 PW=10(15) W), whereas photovoltaic power has a potential of up to 16.3 PW. Both biomass and wind power operate at much lower efficiencies, so their potentials of about 0.3 and 0.1 PW are much lower. These estimates are considerably lower than the incoming flux of solar radiation of 175 PW. When compared to a 2012 primary energy demand of 17 TW, the most direct uses of solar radiation, e.g., by CSP or PV, have thus by far the greatest potential to yield renewable energy requiring the least space to satisfy the human energy demand. Further conversions into solar-based fuels would be reduced by further losses which would lower these potentials. The substantially greater potential of solar-based renewable energy compared to other forms of renewable energy simply reflects much fewer and lower unavoidable conversion losses when solar radiation is directly converted into renewable energy.


Carnot limit; Global estimates; Photosynthesis; Solar energy; Theoretical potentials; Thermodynamic limits; Thermodynamics


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