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How do Solar Cells Work?

May 13, 2016

If you are a science major then this is not the article for you but if, like most of us here, you have sometimes wondered if it is possible to understand how solar cells work in simple terms, then hopefully this article will be useful.

First up, lets look at what a solar cell is. Do you have a calculator on your desk? If yes, take a look at it, chances are it has what look like a series of small black windows. Yeah, OK, you know these are the power supply generators, they take light and use it to charge the tiny battery inside. Those little windowless are also solar cells.

Take enough of this cells, join them together and you can generate a substantial wattage, enough to run a home. That is the principle behind solar cell panels, seen on the roofs of many homes and offices, as well as motorway signs and street lights. As technology improves and manufacturing costs shrink, the applications for solar cells increases. Think of EV [Electric vehicle] charging stations and smart phone recharging units as two recent examples.

Now, this process of generating current from light is also known as photovoltaic or PV. A solar panel is a number of cells, connected electrically and stacked together inside the frame. These frames, or panels can be built to many different sizes, from the simple ones seen in calculators to larger, black panels mounted on your home's roof. If we want even more power we install a number of panels and  group them into an array. An array is where we take a collection of similar objects and arrange them into a pattern so they can work together.

PV cells use silicon to create semiconductors, the same silicon used in the PC industry in CPU manufacture and for which that valley is famous. In PV systems, when light strikes the silicon material or semiconductor chip,  some of it is absorbed by the chip and the energy from the light is transferred  to the semi conductor. We can then say that the chip is now electrically charged, that is, it has a small current.

At this point, it is not terribly useful but this is the starting point. By combining more of these chips or solar cells together we can correspondingly increase the the amount of power we are generating. And as we stated at the outset, once enough of these PV cells are secured in a frame and connected electronically, then we have produced a solar  panel and can produce sufficient electricity to power the average home and more.

Prev: Making a Home Solar Powered

Next: Multiple Faces of Solar Cells

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