The ebook FEEE - Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics is based on material originally written by T.R. Kuphaldt and various co-authors. For more information please read the copyright pages.

Solar Cell

Another type of "battery" is the solar cell, a by-product of the semiconductor revolution in electronics. The photoelectric effect, whereby electrons are dislodged from atoms under the influence of light, has been known in physics for many decades, but it has only been with recent advances in semiconductor technology that a device existed capable of harnessing this effect to any practical degree. Conversion efficiencies for silicon solar cells are still quite low, but their benefits as power sources are legion: no moving parts, no noise, no waste products or pollution (aside from the manufacture of solar cells, which is still a fairly "dirty" industry), and indefinite life (at least in theory).

Specific cost of solar cell technology (dollars per kilowatt) is still high but is constantly approaching the costs of electricity from the power grid. Unlike electronic components made from semiconductor material, which can be made smaller and smaller with less scrap as a result of better quality control, a single solar cell still takes the same amount of ultra-pure silicon to make as it did thirty years ago. Superior quality control fails to yield the same production gain seen in the manufacture of chips and transistors (where isolated specks of impurity can ruin many microscopic circuits on one wafer of silicon). The same number of impure inclusions does little to impact the overall efficiency of a 3-inch solar cell.

Solar cells are often electrically connected and encapsulated as a module. PV modules often have a sheet of glass on the front (sun up) side , allowing light to pass while protecting the semiconductor wafers from the elements (rain, hail, etc.). Solar cells are also usually connected in series in modules, creating an additive voltage. Connecting cells in parallel will yield a higher current. Modules are then interconnected, in series or parallel, or both, to create an array with the desired peak DC voltage and current.

The photo at the left shows polycrystaline photovoltaic cells laminated to backing material in a photovoltaic module. The fine horizontal lines and the broader vertical lines are the connecting wires collecting the generated current.

Last Update: 2010-11-19