Broken down, the two root words “photo” and “voltaic” mean “light” and “electricity.” So it’s no wonder that photovoltaic (PV) cells are essentially solar-electric energy systems, devices built to convert sunlight into an electrical current. This article will summarize the way photovoltaic cells accomplish their magic and will outline their general stages of development.
A PV cell consists of a diode, which conducts electric currents in a single direction using its semiconductor material. Semiconductors have the ability to transfer heat or electricity between metal and an insulator. This capacity increases along with increases in temperature.
When sunlight hits the solar panel of a PV cell, a portion of that light is absorbed and transferred to the semiconductor. Once the semiconductor receives this solar heat, atoms release electrons, which flow through the semiconductor to create an electrical charge. This electrical charge, or current, is drawn to metal plates located on the top and bottom of the PV cell. From there, it enters an inverter, where it can be transferred to a home’s utility panel for useable energy.
Silicon is still the most commonly found semiconductor in an average PV cell. Silicon has a crystalline structure. Each silicon atom consists of three layers filled with electrons that increase in number toward the center of the atom. As electrons in the outer shell are released, the inner electrons move to take their place, resulting in a locked structure. This is why most silicon solar cells are either N-type or P-type silicon cells. Through a doping process, N-type cells include phosporous, enabling more electrons to escape the outer shell of the atomic structure to become electricity. P-type silicon cells are doped with boron, which allows electrons to leave the atomic structure by creating positively charged holes in their place.
The most common semiconductor in PV cells is still the silicon wafer. As technology advances, PV semiconductors are becoming more flexible and diverse. Advancements from the silicon wafer include foil-based solar cells, polymer solar cells, nanocrystal solar cells, dye-sensitized solar cells, and most recently, multispectrum solar cells.
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