You've probably seen calculators that have solar cells - the ones that never need batteries.  In some cases these calculators don't even have an off button.  As long as you have enough light, they seem to work forever. You may have seen larger solar panels on emergency road signs or call boxes, or on buoys at sea, even in parking lots to power 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. There are solar cell arrays on satellites, where they are used to power the electrical systems.

You have probably also been hearing about the "solar revolution" for the last 20 years.  The idea that one day we will all use free electricity from the sun.  This is a seductive promise: On a bright, sunny day, the sun shines approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the planet's surface, and if we could collect all of that energy we could easily power our homes and offices for free.


Solar panels absorb energy to produce hydrogen at SunLine Transit Agency.


On this page we will look at solar cells to learn how they convert the sun's energy directly into electricity. In the process, you will learn why we are getting closer to using the sun's energy on a daily basis, and why we still have more research to do before the process becomes cost effective.




The solar cells that you see on calculators and satellites are photovoltaic cells or modules (modules are simply a group of cells electrically connected and packaged in one frame). Photovoltaics, as the word implies (photo = light, voltaic = electricity), convert sunlight directly into electricity. Once used almost exclusively in space, photovoltaics are used more and more in less exotic ways. They could even power your house. How do these devices work?


Photovoltaic (PV) cells are made of special materials called semiconductors such as silicon, which is currently the most commonly used. Basically, 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 fields that act 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 to use externally. For example, the current can 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. Let's take a deeper look into one example of a PV cell: the single crystal silicon 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, those closest to the center, are completely full. The outer shell, however, is only half full, having only four electrons. A silicon atom will always look for ways to fill up its last shell (which would like to have eight electrons). To do this, it will share electrons with four of its neighbor silicon atoms. It's like every 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.

We've now described pure, crystalline silicon. Pure silicon is a poor conductor of electricity because none of its electrons are free to move about, as electrons are in good conductors such as copper. Instead, the electrons are all locked in the crystalline structure. The silicon in a solar cell is modified slightly so that it will work as a solar cell.



A solar cell has silicon with impurities -- other atoms mixed in with the silicon atoms, changing the way things work a bit. We usually think of impurities as something undesirable, but in our case, our cell wouldn't work without them. These impurities are actually put there on purpose. 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, for example in the form of heat, 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 then wander randomly around the crystalline lattice looking for another hole to fall into. These electrons are called free carriers, and can carry electrical current. There are so few of them in pure silicon, however, that they aren't very useful. Our impure silicon with phosphorous atoms mixed in is a different story. It turns out that it takes a lot less energy to knock loose one of our "extra" phosphorous electrons because they aren't tied up in a bond -- their neighbors aren't holding them back. 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 is.


Actually, only part of our solar cell is N-type. The other part is doped with 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 silicon ("p" for positive) has free holes. Holes really are just the absence of electrons, so they carry the opposite (positive) charge. They move around just like electrons do.

So where has all this gotten us?



The interesting part starts when you put N-type silicon together with P-type silicon. Remember that every PV cell has at least one electric field. Without an electric field, the cell wouldn't work, and this field forms when the N-type and P-type silicon are in contact. Suddenly, the free electrons in the N side, which have been looking all over for holes to fall into, see all the free holes on the P side, and there's a mad rush to fill them in.


Before now, our silicon was all electrically neutral. Our extra electrons were balanced out by the extra protons in the phosphorous. Our missing electrons (holes) were balanced out by the missing protons in the boron. When the holes and electrons mix at the junction between N-type and P-type silicon, however, that neutrality is disrupted. Do all the free electrons fill all the free holes? No. If they did, then the whole arrangement wouldn't be very useful. Right at the junction, however, they do mix and form a barrier, making it harder and harder for electrons on the N side to cross to the P side. Eventually, equilibrium is reached, and we have an electric field separating the two sides.




A n-type Silicon 

B p-type Silicon

The effect of the electric field in a PV cell



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).  So we've got an electric field acting as a diode in which electrons can only move in one direction. Let's see what happens when light hits the cell.



When light, in the form of photons, hits our solar cell, its energy frees electron-hole pairs.

Each photon with enough energy will normally free exactly one electron, and result 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 their original side (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.




A n-type Silicon 

B p-type Silicon

Operation of a PV cell



How much sunlight energy does our PV cell absorb? Unfortunately, the most that our simple cell could absorb is around 25 percent, and more likely is 15 percent or less. Why so little?



Why does our solar cell absorb only about 15 percents of the sunlight's energy? Visible light is only part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic radiation is not monochromatic -- it is made up of a range of different wavelengths, and therefore energy levels. (See How Special Relativity Works for a good discussion of the electromagnetic spectrum.)


Light can be separated into different wavelengths, and we can see them 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 form 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 (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 account for the loss of around 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 (for an electron) 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, our cell is 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 panel array on Solar Navigator development model.




The 'Solar Navigator' vessel above is a catamaran designed to cruise the worlds oceans to prove solar cells can be put to practical use for blue water navigation.  Around 200 sq meters are needed to provide enough energy to propel itself at respectable speeds.  As solar cells become more popular and are further developed, it is hoped efficiency will rise and production costs will reduce.  This could mean that one day you could afford a boat or car powered by the Sun.  Of course the only way this could happen, is if projects such as this prove viability.  We already have solar powered racing cars capable of speed in excess of 50 mph.



There are a few more steps left before we can really use our cell. Silicon happens to be a very shiny material, which means that it is very reflective. Photons that are reflected can't be used by the cell. For that reason, an antireflective coating is applied to the top of the cell to reduce reflection losses to less than 5 percent.


The final step is the glass cover plate that protects the cell from the elements. PV modules are made by connecting several cells (usually 36) in series and parallel to achieve useful levels of voltage and current, and putting them in a sturdy frame complete with a glass cover and positive and negative terminals on the back.



A = Glass cover   B = Anti reflective coating   C = Contact grid  

D = N-type Silicon  E P-type silicon   F = Back contact

Basic structure of a generic silicon PV cell



Single crystal silicon isn't the only material used in PV cells. Polycrystalline silicon is also used in an attempt to cut manufacturing costs, although resulting cells aren't as efficient as single crystal silicon. Amorphous silicon, which has no crystalline structure, is also used, again in an attempt to reduce production costs. Other materials used include gallium arsenide, copper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride. 


Since different materials have different band gaps, they seem to be "tuned" to different wavelengths, or photons of different energies. One way efficiency has been improved is to use two or more layers of different materials with different band gaps. The higher band gap material is on the surface, absorbing high-energy photons while allowing lower-energy photons to be absorbed by the lower band gap material beneath. This technique can result in much higher efficiencies. Such cells, called multi-junction cells, can have more than one electric field.




This website is Copyright 1999 & 2005  NJK.   The bird logo and name Solar Navigator are trademarks. All rights reserved.  All other trademarks are hereby acknowledged.       Max Energy Limited is an environmental educational charity.