The discovery of photovoltaics (PV) and the photovoltaic effect was probably one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. This breakthrough led to the commercial production of solar panels, which can provide electricity using a virtually limitless source of energy, i.e. the sun.
The founding principles behind photovoltaics were first discovered by Albert Einstein in the early half of the 20th century. His Nobel Prize winning discovery described the nature of light and its photoelectric effect. The first photovoltaic module was built in 1954 by Bell laboratories, however the technology as a whole was too expensive for commercial use until the 1970s, by which time it had become more advanced and economical. Solar power, which makes use of the photovoltaic effect, is now coming into its own, and it is estimated that in the future solar power may well become the dominant energy source on our planet.
Photovoltaic Solar Panels: How it works
Solar cells are made of the same kind of semiconductor materials, which are widely used in the field of microelectronics. As used in solar applications, this semiconductor material is coated with a substance to create an electric field, which is charged positively and negatively on its two sides. When sunshine strikes the solar cell, electrons are excited in the semiconductor material, and by attaching electrical conductors to these oppositely charged sides, a simple electrical circuit is formed.
The electrical current generated in this process can be captured as electricity, which can then be used to power any appliances, lighting, or other equipment in a typical household. When a large number of these solar cells are electrically connected to each other, and mounted in a framework securely, a photovoltaic module is created. The number of cells connected to each other will determine the amount of current generated by the photovoltaic module, since each cell would be receiving sunlight and converting it into electrical current.
Photovoltaic Modules and Arrays
To take the process a step further, several of these photovoltaic modules can be collected in a photovoltaic array, which is simply a larger configuration of modules designed to generate greater electrical current, and thus more electrical energy. The amount of current produced can be controlled fairly precisely, so the level of power produced by a photovoltaic array is reliable and controllable.
The most important aspect of solar panels using the photovoltaic effect is the percentage of efficiency at which they convert the sun’s energy into electrical energy. The majority of solar panels sold commercially today offer an efficiency percentage between 11% and 18%.
However, a great deal of research is ongoing in the area of solar panels and solar energy, and already panels have been produced which, under test conditions, have achieved as much as 35% efficiency. It is to be expected that this number will go even higher in the near future and, as a result, solar energy will become even more attractive as an option for the planet’s energy needs.