How Solar Cells Work

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Photovoltaic Cells: Converting Photons to Electrons

­­The solar cells that you see on calculators and satellites are also called photovoltaic (PV) cells, which as the name implies (photo meaning "light" and voltaic meaning "electricity"), convert sunlight directly into electricity. A module is a group of cells connected electrically and packaged into a frame (more commonly known as a solar panel), which can then be grouped into larger solar arrays, like the one operating at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

­Photovoltaic cells are made of special materials called semiconductors such as silicon, which is currently used most commonly. 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 semiconductor. The energy knocks electrons loose, allowing them to flow freely.

PV cells also all have one or more electric field that acts 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 for external use, say, to 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. On the next page, let's take a deeper look into one example of a PV cell: the single-crystal silicon cell.