RESOURCES OF ENERGY
By Ahmed Mohideen
Introduction to How Solar Cells Work
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.
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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.
How Silicon Makes a Solar Cell
Silicon has some special chemical properties, especially in its crystalline form. An atom of silicon has 14 electrons, arranged in three different shells. The first two shells, those closest to the center, are completely full. The outer shell, however, is only half full, having only four electrons. A silicon atom will always look for ways to fill up its last shell (which would like to have eight electrons). To do this, it will share electrons with four of its neighbor silicon atoms. It's like every atom holds hands with its neighbors, except that in this case, each atom has four hands joined to four neighbors. That's what forms the crystalline structure, and that structure turns out to be important to this type of PV cell.
We've now described pure, crystalline silicon. Pure silicon is a poor conductor of electricity because none of its electrons are free to move about, as electrons are in good conductors such as copper. Instead, the electrons are all locked in the crystalline structure. The silicon in a solar cell is modified slightly so that it will work as a solar cell.
A solar cell has silicon with impurities -- other atoms mixed in with the silicon atoms, changing the way things work a bit. We usually think of impurities as something undesirable, but in our case, our cell wouldn't work without them. These impurities are actually put there on purpose. Consider silicon with an atom of phosphorous here and there, maybe one for every million silicon atoms. Phosphorous has five electrons in its outer shell, not four. It still bonds with its silicon neighbor atoms, but in a sense, the phosphorous has one electron that doesn't have anyone to hold hands with. It doesn't form part of a bond, but there is a positive proton in the phosphorous nucleus holding it in place.
When energy is added to pure silicon, for example in the form of heat, it can cause a few electrons to break free of their bonds and leave their atoms. A hole is left behind in each case. These electrons then wander randomly around the crystalline lattice looking for another hole to fall into. These electrons are called free carriers, and can carry electrical current. There are so few of them in pure silicon, however, that they aren't...