Beginners Guide to Science: Understanding Solar Cells

by Denver Burke
(Chester, Cheshire, England, UK)

Solar cells, or ‘photovoltaic’ cells are electrical devices that directly convert light energy into electricity. Solar cells are a form of photoelectric cells, and are classed as such because their voltage, resistance and current can vary when exposed to light. Once exposed, the reaction can generate and sustain an electric current without the need for any external power source.

First experimented by a French physicist called Becquerel in 1839, he built the world’s first photovoltaic cell at the tender age of 19 in his dad’s laboratory, however it was not until 1883 that the first solid state cell was built by Charles Fritts. 1954 saw the development of the first practical photovoltaic cell, and an improved design was used on the Vanguard 1 satellite launched in 1958.

Since then, solar cells have made their way back down to earth, and have been used to power a number of everyday products, with calculators being the most recognised. As long as there is enough light to power the solar cell, then the device will continue to work – in some cases, they’re not even built with off buttons! Solar cells have even been built into flashing road signs, emergency lighting, call boxes, sea buoys and car parks.

The Solar Revolution

Historically, scientists predicted that there will one day be a ‘solar revolution’, where the earth will be powered by free electricity that we’ve harnessed from the sun, however with continued improvements in technology, this revolution is looking more like science fact than science fiction. On a regular bright sunny day, the rays of the sun can give off up to 1000 watts of energy per square meter of surface. If we had the ability to collect or harness this energy, then everything could be powered
by the sun – there would be no need to burn fossil fuels.

Although we’re quite a few years away in terms of developing this technology, that doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt solar cells to power bigger things – let’s say a house for example? It may not be as simple as installing some solar modules to your roof or walls, however it’s not as hard as you imagine either. Utility consultants are even recommending it to a number of customers in order to save them money on energy bills.

Powering Your Home

Firstly, in order to harness the sun’s energy though solar panels, your house must be correctly positioned to take full advantage of the rays if you’re house isn’t used to much light, then the panels will struggle to convert the little energy it receives. Secondly, you must make sure that your house isn’t shaded by tall trees or buildings, as this will also reduce the amount of sunlight the panels can convert into energy.

The amount of energy that can be converted also depends on how many solar cell panels you want to install on your roof. If you’re just looking to supplement your utility bills with a little help from the sun, then one or two panels will service. Many households however are deciding to convert their entire homes to being more energy efficient, meaning roofs and walls covered in energy converting solar cells. Solar cells are an excellent source of alternative energy, however it can be extremely expensive to install the panels, let alone convert an entire home.

About the Author

ENER-G are an alternative energy company who offer a diversity of solutions from solar, water, waste among other energy forms – visit their site for further information.

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