Although there is a multitude of solar radiation energy available to us, there are some important limitations to the energy that can be used to fuel all forms of life. The Laws of Thermodynamics explain these limitations. The First Law of Thermodynamics explains that energy can be conserved (by changing from one form of energy to another), but it cannot be created or destroyed. This means that the total amount of energy that is in an isolated system (such as an engine or a generator) remains constant (conserved) over time.

However, the total amount of useful energy output of an isolated system is never equal to the total energy input. This is because some of the input energy will be lost as dispersed heat as it is processed. For example, when energy is being processed through an engine, some of the input energy will be absorbed by the container, causing the molecules that make up the container to vibrate and radiate energy out to its surroundings as dispersed heat. Friction is another example; some energy taken into an engine system will be lost as friction, such as when a piston moves a wheel. There will always be energy lost to the surroundings and energy lost due to friction.

Therefore, using the laws that govern the conservation of energy as our basis, we can summarize the energy balance of an engine in the following equation:

Energy input = energy output + energy lost to friction + energy lost as heat to surroundings

Consequently, it is never possible to obtain as much useful energy output as the total amount of energy input. The efficiency of an engine is therefore defined as the ratio of energy output to energy input, or:

Efficiency = Energy Output/Energy Input

The fact that no real process can ever be completely efficient is a result of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which explains how the process used by an isolated system to transform energy naturally converts some of its input energy into energy of low quality that cannot be used.

Looking Ahead


In the Energy and Action section ahead, you are invited to do an inventory of incandescent bulbs in your home or school and devise a replacement plan.

Through conversions of energy from one form to another (such as from gasoline to the kinetic motion of a car), useful energy is “lost” as heat. For example, only 15% of the energy in gasoline released to power a car is actually used to move the car forward, while 85% of the energy input is converted into heat that dissipates in the surrounding air. This dissipated energy cannot be captured. Therefore it cannot be used.

Another example is the incandescent light bulb, which only converts 5% of the input energy into light. The remaining 95% of the input energy is lost as dispersed heat. In fact, most energy transformation processes are very inefficient, including photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert solar energy into chemical energy, and which supplies food energy to support a food web.

Photosynthesis and the Flow of Solar Energy to Living Organisms

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, life on Earth is primarily fueled by solar radiation energy. Plants use the sun’s light energy (photons) in a process called photosynthesis in order to produce their own ‘food’. The term ‘photosynthesis’ comes from the Latin words photo, which means ‘light’, and synthesis, which means ‘putting together’.

Figure 2: Cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae, are ancient, single-celled prokaryotic organisms that are the photosynthetic ancestors of modern day plants. They are the first photosynthetic organisms to produce oxygen, which vastly changed the earth’s atmospheric composition, allowing for the highly efficient aerobic metabolism to evolve. 1

The first photosynthetic organisms on Earth came into existence roughly 3.4 billion years ago. This is quite amazing considering the fact that the complex metabolic system used in photosynthesis evolved less than 1 billion years after the Earth was formed, approximately 4.5 billion years ago. This metabolic system is a complex series of biochemical reactions in the plant cell that allow the plant to use solar radiation as an energy source to convert carbon dioxide into sugar. Therefore, the input energy to photosynthesis is solar radiation, and the output energies are heat (which is lost to the environment), and sugar which is a chemical form of energy that plant tissues utilize to grow and reproduce.

Unlike the photosynthetic mechanisms utilized by today’s plants, these early organisms did not absorb the sun’s visible light. Instead these organisms absorbed a different portion of the solar spectrum (see Figure 11), called infrared radiation. They also did not produce oxygen as a by-product like plants do today, but rather produced sulfur containing compounds as by-products.

It would not be for another billion years (approximately 2.7 billion years ago) that single-celled cyanobacteria (Figure 2) would become the first photosynthetic organisms to absorb light from the visible portion of the spectrum and produce oxygen. Over the course of the last 2.7 billion years, thousands of different forms of tiny single-celled plant-like organisms called algae have evolved, transitioning the photosynthetic apparatus through the process of evolution to larger, more complex modern day land and aquatic vascular plants.

Looking Ahead


The process of photosynthesis is described in detail in Chapter 4.

We can observe the First Law of Thermodynamics at work in the process of photosynthesis. Solar energy fuels photosynthetic plants and algae, which in turn act as a fuel base that supports entire food webs of life on Earth. This fuel base originates when energy from the sun is converted into sugars, starches, and lipids by plants that will then be consumed by animals and humans as food. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is also at work here. As energy is being transferred through the food chain, it is being transformed from one chemical form to another. In this process, much of the food energy is lost as metabolic heat. 

The process of photosynthesis involves a complex biochemical reaction that is split into two parts, the light-dependent reactions and the light-independent reactions, the latter is also known as the Calvin Cycle (Figure 3). Both are summed up with the overall equation of photosynthesis:

6CO2 + 12H2O + Solar Energy ⇒ C6H12O6 + 6O2 + 6H2O + Heat

Six carbon dioxide molecules from the atmosphere plus twelve liquid water molecules from the soil plus light energy from the sun are metabolized through the process of photosynthesis in the plant’s chloroplasts to yield one molecule of glucose, six molecules of oxygen gas, and six water molecules. Heat is lost as a byproduct of the photosynthetic reaction. 

Closer Look


Read more about the Calvin Cycle.

In the light-dependent reaction of photosynthesis, solar radiation in the visible portion of the spectrum travels from the sun to the chloroplasts. A flow of electrons is initiated once energy is absorbed by the chlorophyll. Electrons are removed from water molecules and passed to an electron transport system, where they facilitate the synthesis of a molecule of ATP (adenosine triphosphate; cellular energy) and NADPH (an electron source). The ATP and NADPH are reactants needed to begin the Calvin Cycle. 

Calvin cycle
Figure 3: An overview of photosynthesis with the light-dependent reactions and the Calvin Cycle both occurring within the chloroplast of the plant cell. Note how energy in the form of ATP from the light-dependent reactions is used to power the Calvin Cycle, and reducing agents (NADP and ADP) from the Calvin Cycle are used to aid the transformation of solar energy into ATP within the chloroplast’s stroma. 2
The purpose of the Calvin Cycle is to produce the familiar 6-carbon sugar called glucose (C6H12O6) which it does by turning the biochemical cycle 6 times, each time bringing in one more carbon in the form of CO2 to build the 6-carbon glucose molecule.

Questions to Consider

Since ancient times, human beings have tried to invent a machine that continues indefinitely without any exterior source of energy, a so-called ‘perpetual motion machine’. Can you explain why such an invention is impossible according to the laws of thermodynamics?

If you would like some assistance, visit this website.

The laws of thermodynamics are essential for understanding energy. People often have more difficulty understanding the second law than the first and third. To test your understanding of the second law, try explaining it with these phenomena:

  • hot pans cooling
  • water flowing down a waterfall
  • air blowing out into the atmosphere when a bicycle tire is punctured