Thermal Energy: Humanity’s New Best Friend

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The Little Shop of Physics is not, in fact, a shop. At least, not in the traditional sense.

The Little Shop of Physics is not, in fact, a shop. At least, not in the traditional sense.
 Founded by Brian Jones, a professor at Colorado State University, and aided by Sheila Ferguson, another teacher, the Little Shop’s purpose is to create and demonstrate experiments that exhibit some of the lesser-known scientific discoveries.
 That isn’t to say those lesser-known scientific discoveries are unimportant to human life, however. In fact, one in particular could be the key to figuring out how to stall global warming- perhaps even indefinitely.
 Thermal energy is (potentially) this key. While not entirely obscure, it is certainly not widely-known, but was the focus point of Jones and Fergusons’ demonstration.
Thermal energy is, essentially, heat. Perhaps a more accurate description is that it is the energy heat manifests itself as, also known as infrared. Thermal energy is shown by an infrared camera, most commonly on a black-white scale. (Black is the least thermal energy, or coldest. White is the hottest.) Thermal radiation is a form of thermal energy; like light, but with a longer wavelength, which puts it on the invisible spectrum.
It may sound a little complex, but humans have found uses for thermal energy in three main demographics: architecture, humans, and to better understand the planet,.
“Green” architecture can benefit hugely from infrared/thermal technology. A quick scan around the lobby of a building can show anywhere that excessive thermal energy is being emitted, which is a nightmare for efficient insulation. One solution for this is emisscivity glass. This glass is seemingly identical to traditional glass, but emits much less thermal energy, keeping rooms cooler in summer and warmer in winter. This saves a lot of money on heating and cooling.
  Thermal energy is already being used in the world of medicine. Physicians have been taking patients’ temperatures for years using a special thermometer that inserts in the ear and reads the inner ear’s temperature, using thermal energy. An even newer thermometer has been making appearances lately, where the doctor swipes across the forehead with a disc. This measures the thermal energy being emitted from a vein, giving an accurate temperature of the blood. Imagine if a doctor could immediately tell if you had a fever without even having to come near you and risk contracting the disease? Comparing a healthy infrared scan with the fevered one could catch disease quickly and safely.
Finally, infrared technology helps us understand Earth, which may be the key to stopping global warming. The Earth and Sun are engaged in a complex dance of heating and cooling. Think of the atmosphere of Earth as a one-way mirror, with the window side facing the Sun. Thermal radiation from the Sun comes through the window and passes through the atmosphere with no interference. When it hits the Earth, some radiation reflects back up. However, it is now hitting the “mirror” side of the one-way mirror, so some radiation is absorbed into the mirror and the rest goes through, back into space toward the Sun. But Earth isn’t left frozen because some radiation was neither absorbed nor moved through. It was bounced back to Earth, where the dance continues.
This could be instrumental in the fight against global warming because, if humans find a way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (the CO2 is what’s absorbing the radiation and slowly warming Earth), more radiation will bounce away from Earth, slowly cooling the planet. Effects won’t be immediate, but if a stable level of carbon dioxide is maintained, Earth will neither warm up nor cool down. Thermal energy is giving us the chance to save our world. Why pass that up?

For more information, visit littleshop.physics.colostate.edu or emailn physicsjones@gmail.com