About 47 percent of the energy that the sun releases to the earth actually reaches
the ground. About a third is reflected directly back into space by the atmosphere. The
time in which solar energy is available, is also the time we least need it least – daytime.
Because the sun’s energy cannot be stored for use another time, we need to convert the
suns energy into an energy that can be stored.
One possible method of storing solar energy is by heating water that can be
insulated. The water is heated by passing it through hollow panels. Black-coated steal
plates are used because dark colors absorb heat more efficiently.
However, this method only supplies enough energy for activities such as washing
and bathing. The solar panels generate low grade heat, that is, they generate low
temperatures for the amount of heat needed in a day. In order to generate high grade
heat, intense enough to convert water into high-pressure steam which can then be used to
turn electric generators there must be another method.
The concentrated beams of sunlight are collected in a device called a solar furnace,
which acts on the same principles as a large magnifying glass. The solar furnace takes the
sunlight from a large area and by the use of lenses and mirrors can focus the light into a
very small area. Very elaborate solar furnaces have machines that angle the mirrors and
lenses to the sun all day. This system can provide sizable amounts of electricity and create
extremely high temperatures of over 6000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Solar energy generators are very clean, little waste is emitted from the generators
into the environment. The use of coal, oil and gasoline is a constant drain, economically
and environmentally. Will solar energy be the wave of the future? Could the worlds
requirement of energy be fulfilled by the powerhouse of our galaxy – the sun?
Automobiles in the future will probably run on solar energy, and houses will have solar
Solar cells today are mostly made of silicon, one of the most common elements on
Earth. The crystalline silicon solar cell was one of the first types to be developed and it is
still the most common type in use today. They do not pollute the atmosphere and they
leave behind no harmful waste products.
Photovoltaic cells work effectively even in cloudy weather and unlike solar heaters,
are more efficient at low temperatures. They do their job silently and there are no moving
parts to wear out. It is no wonder that one marvels on how such a device would function.
To understand how a solar cell works, it is necessary to go back to some basic
atomic concepts. In the simplest model of the atom, electrons orbit a central nucleus,
composed of protons and neutrons. Each electron carries one negative charge and each
proton one positive charge. Neutrons carry no charge. Every atom has the same number
of electrons as there are protons, so, on the whole, it is electrically neutral.
The electrons have discrete kinetic energy levels, which increase with the orbital
radius. When atoms bond together to form a solid, the electron energy levels merge into
bands. In electrical conductors, these bands are continuous but in insulators and
semiconductors there is an energy gap, in which no electron orbits can exist, between
the inner valence band and outer conduction band Book 1.
Valence electrons help to bind together the atoms in a solid by orbiting 2 adjacent
nuclei, while conduction electrons, being less closely bound to the nuclei, are free to move
in response to an applied voltage or electric field. The fewer conduction electrons there
are, the higher the electrical resistively of the material.
In semiconductors, the materials from which solar sells are made, the energy gap
E.g. is fairly small. Because of this, electrons in the valence band can easily be made to
jump to the conduction band by the injection of energy, either in the form of heat or light
Book 4. This explains why the high resistively of semiconductors decreases as the
temperature is raised or the material illuminated.
The excitation of valence electrons to the conduction band is best accomplished
when the semiconductor is in the crystalline state, i.e. when the atoms are arranged in a
precise geometrical formation or lattice. At room temperature and low illumination,
pure or so-called intrinsic semiconductors have a high resistively. But the resistively can
be greatly reduced by doping, i.e. introducing a very small amount of impurity, of the
order of one in a million atoms.
There are 2 kinds of doping. Those which have more valence electrons that the
semiconductor itself are called donors and those which have fewer are termed
acceptors Book 2.
In a silicon crystal, each atom has 4 valence electrons, which are shared with a
neighboring atom to form a stable tetrahedral structure. Phosphorus, which has 5 valence
electrons, is a donor and causes extra electrons to appear in the conduction band. Silicon
so doped is called n-type Book 5. On the other hand, boron, with a valence of 3, is an
acceptor, leaving so-called holes in the lattice, which act like positive charges and render
the silicon p-typeBook 5.
Holes, like electrons, will remove under the influence of an applied voltage but, as
the mechanism of their movement is valence electron substitution from atom to atom, they
are less mobile than the free conduction electrons Book 2. In a n-on-p crystalline silicon
solar cell, a shadow junction is formed by diffusing phosphorus into a boron-based base.
At the junction, conduction electrons from donor atoms in the n-region diffuse into the
p-region and combine with holes in acceptor atoms, producing a layer of
negatively-charged impurity atoms. The opposite action also takes place, holes from
acceptor atoms in the p-region crossing into the n-region, combining with electrons and
producing positively-charged impurity atoms Book 4.
The net result of these movements is the disappearance of conduction electrons
and holes from the vicinity of the junction and the establishment there of a reverse electric
field, which is positive on the n-side and negative on the p-side. This reverse field plays a
vital part in the functioning of the device. The area in which it is set up is called the
depletion area or barrier layerBook 4.
When light falls on the front surface, photons with energy in excess of the energy
gap interact with valence electrons and lift them to the conduction band. This movement
leaves behind holes, so each photon is said to generate an electron-hole pair Book 2.
In the crystalline silicon, electron-hole generation takes place throughout the
thickness of the cell, in concentrations depending on the irradiance and the spectral
composition of the light. Photon energy is inversely proportional to wavelength. The
highly energetic photons in the ultra-violet and blue part of the spectrum are absorbed
very near the surface, while the less energetic longer wave photons in the red and infrared
are absorbed deeper in the crystal and further from the junction Book 4. Most are
absorbed within a thickness of 100 m. The electrons and holes diffuse through the
crystal in an effort to produce an even distribution. Some recombine after a lifetime of the
order of one millisecond, neutralizing their charges and giving up energy in the form of
heat. Others reach the junction before their lifetime has expired. There they are separated
by the reverse field, the electrons being accelerated towards the negative contact and the
holes towards the positive Book 5.
If the cell is connected to a load, electrons will be pushed from the negative
contact through the load to the positive contact, where they will recombine with holes.
This constitutes an electric current. In crystalline silicon cells, the current generated by
radiation of a particular spectral composition is directly proportional to the irradiance
Book 2. Some types of solar cell, however, do not exhibit this linear relationship.
The silicon solar cell has many advantages such as high reliability, photovoltaic
power plants can be put up easily and quickly, photovoltaic power plants are quite
modular and can respond to sudden changes in solar input which occur when clouds pass
by. However there are still some major problems with them. They still cost too much for
mass use and are relatively inefficient with conversion efficiencies of 20% to 30%. With
time, both of these problems will be solved through mass production and new
technological advances in semiconductors.