You've probably seen calculators with solar cells -- devices that never need batteries and in some cases, don't even have an off button. As long as there's enough light, they seem to work forever. You may also have seen larger solar panels, perhaps on emergency road signs, call boxes, buoys and even in parking lots to power the lights.
Although these larger panels aren't as common as solar-powered calculators, they're out there and not that hard to spot if you know where to look. In fact, photovoltaics -- which were once used almost exclusively in space, powering satellites' electrical systems as far back as 1958 -- are being used more and more in less exotic ways. The technology continues to pop up in new devices all the time, from sunglasses to electric vehicle charging stations.
The hope for a "solar revolution" has been floating around for decades -- the idea that one day we'll all use free electricity from the sun. This is a seductive promise, because on a bright, sunny day, the sun's rays give off approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the planet's surface. If we could collect all of that energy, we could easily power our homes and offices for free.
Photovoltaic Cells: Converting Photons to Electrons
The solar cells that you see on calculators and satellites are also called photovoltaic (PV) cells, which as the name implies (photo meaning "light" and voltaic meaning "electricity"), convert sunlight directly into electricity. A module is a group of cells connected electrically and packaged into a frame (more commonly known as a solar panel), which can then be grouped into larger solar arrays, like the one operating at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Photovoltaic cells are made of special materials called semiconductors such as silicon, which is currently used most commonly. Ba¬sically, when light strikes the cell, a certain portion of it is absorbed within the semiconductor material. This means that the energy of the absorbed light is transferred to the semiconductor. The energy knocks electrons loose, allowing them to flow freely.
PV cells also all have one or more electric field that acts to force electrons freed by light absorption to flow in a certain direction. This flow of electrons is a current, and by placing metal contacts on the top and bottom of the PV cell, we can draw that current off for external use, say, to power a calculator. This current, together with the cell's voltage (which is a result of its built-in electric field or fields), defines the power (or wattage) that the solar cell can produce.
That's the basic process, but there's really much more to it. On the next page, let's take a deeper look into one example of a PV cell: the single-crystal silicon cell.
How Silicon Makes a Solar Cell
Silicon has some special chemical properties, especially in its crystalline form. An atom of silicon has 14 electrons, arranged in three different shells.
The first two shells -- which hold two and eight electrons respectively -- are completely full. The outer shell, however, is only half full with just four electrons. A silicon atom will always look for ways to fill up its last shell, and to do this, it will share electrons with four nearby atoms. It's like each atom holds hands with its neighbors, except that in this case, each atom has four hands joined to four neighbors. That's what forms the crystalline structure, and that structure turns out to be important to this type of PV cell.
The only problem is that pure crystalline silicon is a poor conductor of electricity because none of its electrons are free to move about, unlike the electrons in more optimum conductors like copper. To address this issue, the silicon in a solar cell has impurities -- other atoms purposefully mixed in with the silicon atoms -- which changes the way things work a bit. We usually think of impurities as something undesirable, but in this case, our cell wouldn't work without them.
Consider silicon with an atom of phosphorous here and there, maybe one for every million silicon atoms. Phosphorous has five electrons in its outer shell, not four. It still bonds with its silicon neighbor atoms, but in a sense, the phosphorous has one electron that doesn't have anyone to hold hands with. It doesn't form part of a bond, but there is a positive proton in the phosphorous nucleus holding it in place.
When energy is added to pure silicon, in the form of heat for example, it can cause a few electrons to break free of their bonds and leave their atoms. A hole is left behind in each case. These electrons, called free carriers, then wander randomly around the crystalline lattice looking for another hole to fall into and carrying an electrical current. However, there are so few of them in pure silicon, that they aren't very useful.
But our impure silicon with phosphorous atoms mixed in is a different story. It takes a lot less energy to knock loose one of our "extra" phosphorous electrons because they aren't tied up in a bond with any neighboring atoms. As a result, most of these electrons do break free, and we have a lot more free carriers than we would have in pure silicon. The process of adding impurities on purpose is called doping, and when doped with phosphorous, the resulting silicon is called N-type ("n" for negative) because of the prevalence of free electrons. N-type doped silicon is a much better conductor than pure silicon.
The other part of a typical solar cell is doped with the element boron, which has only three electrons in its outer shell instead of four, to become P-type silicon. Instead of having free electrons, P-type ("p" for positive) has free openings and carries the opposite (positive) charge.
Anatomy of a Solar Cell
Before now, our two separate pieces of silicon were electrically neutral; the interesting part begins when you put them together. That's because without an electric field, the cell wouldn't work; the field forms when the N-type and P-type silicon come into contact. Suddenly, the free electrons on the N side see all the openings on the P side, and there's a mad rush to fill them. Do all the free electrons fill all the free holes? No. If they did, then the whole arrangement wouldn't be very useful. However, right at the junction, they do mix and form something of a barrier, making it harder and harder for electrons on the N side to cross over to the P side. Eventually, equilibrium is reached, and we have an electric field separating the two sides.
This electric field acts as a diode, allowing (and even pushing) electrons to flow from the P side to the N side, but not the other way around. It's like a hill -- electrons can easily go down the hill (to the N side), but can't climb it (to the P side).
When light, in the form of photons, hits our solar cell, its energy breaks apart electron-hole pairs. Each photon with enough energy will normally free exactly one electron, resulting in a free hole as well. If this happens close enough to the electric field, or if free electron and free hole happen to wander into its range of influence, the field will send the electron to the N side and the hole to the P side.
This causes further disruption of electrical neutrality, and if we provide an external current path, electrons will flow through the path to the P side to unite with holes that the electric field sent there, doing work for us along the way. The electron flow provides the current, and the cell's electric field causes a voltage. With both current and voltage, we have power, which is the product of the two.
There are a few more components left before we can really use our cell. Silicon happens to be a very shiny material, which can send photons bouncing away before they've done their job, so an antireflective coating is applied to reduce those losses. The final step is to install something that will protect the cell from the elements -- often a glass cover plate. PV modules are generally made by connecting several individual cells together to achieve useful levels of voltage and current, and putting them in a sturdy frame complete with positive and negative terminals.
How much sunlight energy does our PV cell absorb? Unfortunately, probably not an awful lot. In 2006, for example, most solar panels only reached efficiency levels of about 12 to 18 percent. The most cutting-edge solar panel system that year finally muscled its way over the industry's long-standing 40 percent barrier in solar efficiency -- achieving 40.7 percent [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. So why is it such a challenge to make the most of a sunny day?
Energy Loss in a Solar Cell.
Visible light is only part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic radiation is not monochromatic -- it's made up of a range of different wavelengths, and therefore energy levels.
Light can be separated into different wavelengths, which we can see in the form of a rainbow. Since the light that hits our cell has photons of a wide range of energies, it turns out that some of them won't have enough energy to alter an electron-hole pair. They'll simply pass through the cell as if it were transparent. Still other photons have too much energy.
Only a certain amount of energy, measured in electron volts (eV) and defined by our cell material (about 1.1 eV for crystalline silicon), is required to knock an electron loose. We call this the band gap energy of a material. If a photon has more energy than the required amount, then the extra energy is lost. (That is, unless a photon has twice the required energy, and can create more than one electron-hole pair, but this effect is not significant.) These two effects alone can account for the loss of about 70 percent of the radiation energy incident on our cell.
Why can't we choose a material with a really low band gap, so we can use more of the photons? Unfortunately, our band gap also determines the strength (voltage) of our electric field, and if it's too low, then what we make up in extra current (by absorbing more photons), we lose by having a small voltage. Remember that power is voltage times current. The optimal band gap, balancing these two effects, is around 1.4 eV for a cell made from a single material.
We have other losses as well. Our electrons have to flow from one side of the cell to the other through an external circuit. We can cover the bottom with a metal, allowing for good conduction, but if we completely cover the top, then photons can't get through the opaque conductor and we lose all of our current (in some cells, transparent conductors are used on the top surface, but not in all). If we put our contacts only at the sides of our cell, then the electrons have to travel an extremely long distance to reach the contacts.
Remember, silicon is a semiconductor -- it's not nearly as good as a metal for transporting current. Its internal resistance (called series resistance) is fairly high, and high resistance means high losses. To minimize these losses, cells are typically covered by a metallic contact grid that shortens the distance that electrons have to travel while covering only a small part of the cell surface. Even so, some photons are blocked by the grid, which can't be too small or else its own resistance will be too high.
Solar-powering a House
What would you have to do to power your house with solar energy? Although it's not as simple as just slapping some modules on your roof, it's not extremely difficult to do, either.
First of all, not every roof has the correct orientation or angle of inclination to take full advantage of the sun's energy. Non-tracking PV systems in the Northern Hemisphere should ideally point toward true south, although orientations that face in more easterly and westerly directions can work too, albeit by sacrificing varying degrees of efficiency. Solar panels should also be inclined at an angle as close to the area's latitude as possible to absorb the maximum amount of energy year-round.
A different orientation and/or inclination could be used if you want to maximize energy production for the morning or afternoon, and/or the summer or winter. Of course, the modules should never be shaded by nearby trees or buildings, no matter the time of day or the time of year. In a PV module, if even just one of its cells is shaded, power production can be significantly reduced.
If you have a house with an unshaded, southward-facing roof, you need to decide what size system you need. This is complicated by the facts that your electricity production depends on the weather, which is never completely predictable, and that your electricity demand will also vary. Luckily, these hurdles are fairly easy to clear. Meteorological data gives average monthly sunlight levels for different geographical areas.
This takes into account rainfall and cloudy days, as well as altitude, humidity and other more subtle factors. You should design for the worst month, so that you'll have enough electricity year-round.
With that data and your average household demand (your utility bill conveniently lets you know how much energy you use every month), there are simple methods you can use to determine just how many PV modules you'll need. You'll also need to decide on a system voltage, which you can control by deciding how many modules to wire in series.
You may have already guessed a couple of problems that we'll have to solve. First, what do we do when the sun isn't shining?
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