The first modern solar cell was created in 1954 by Bell Labs which led to silicon being used in the making of solar cells. By combining cells together you create a solar panel
and in turn combining panels you create a solar array.
The solar cells you see on calculators are called photovoltaic (PV) cells. The sun's rays give off approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter on the planet's surface and when sunlight hits the solar cell, the energy from the sun 'drains' through the metal contacts on the cell. PV cells are made of special materials called semiconductors, mainly made from silicon. When light strikes the cell, a portion of the energy is absorbed by the semiconductor material and the energy knocks the electrons loose and allows them to flow freely.
PV cells have one or more electric field that forces electrons to flow in a certain direction known as a current. By placing metal contacts on the top and bottom of the cell, we can draw that current for our own use. The current with the cell's voltage defines the power that the solar cell can produce.
Silicon is used in PV cells because of some special chemical properties. Aside from being abundant, an atom of silicon has 14 electrons, arranged in three different shells. The first two shells - which hold two and eight electrons respectively - are completely full. The outer shell, however, is only half full with just four electrons. A silicon atom will always look for ways to fill up its last shell. To do this it will share electrons with four nearby atoms. It's like each atom holds hands with its neighbors, except that in this case, each atom has four hands joined to four neighbors. This is what forms the crystalline structure and it's this structure that's important to this type of PV cell. Whew! That's a lot of science.
Solar energy comes from, well, light and not all types of light work for generating electricity with solar cells. Photons from light come in different ranges of energy. If there isn't enough energy, the photons will pass through the panel, however if the photons have too much energy it will effectively bounce off and is lost. Only a certain amount of energy is required to knock an electron loose, this is called the band gap energy of a material. It's possible to choose a material with a low band gap, but this will result in a lower voltage. To produce electricity with solar cells, we are looking for the 'Goldilocks' of band gap energy.
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