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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Edition 10: Solar Energy

You've probably seen calculators that have solar cells -- calculators that never need batteries, and in some cases 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, on buoys, 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.
In this article, we will examine 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.
Photovoltaic Cells:
Converting Photons to Electrons -
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 semi-conductors 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 semi-conductor. 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.
Anatomy of a Solar CellBefore 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

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