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How Solar Cells use Sunlight to Make Electricity


By Ferris Arnous

What is Solar Energy Conversion?

Solar Energy Conversion is a quantomechanical process in which sunlight is converted from kinetic to
electrical energy. The main components of this process include energy from the sun in the form of
sunlight and a solar cell system. Sounds simple right? Well despite the components of this process being
very simple, how these components interact to allow this process to occur is quite extensive and is the key
to producing energy from the sun.

Why is it important?

As the world’s population continues to grow exponentially it is vital for both the sustainability of the
planet as well as the stability of the people and nations that inhabit it to be contentious of the waste that
human beings produce. That said one of the most critical methods of ensuring humanity doesn’t
overproduce waste is through conservation of energy. This is perhaps most notable through the efforts in
renewable energy systems such as solar cells. The combination of understanding the need for renewable
energy as well as the vitality to preserve the balance of the Earth’s natural ecosystems is why
understanding systems like solar cells is so significant.

Component: The Sun


 The first component of this process is the energy that the sun provides in the form of solar
radiation. To understand this step of the process a certain perspective of what the sun is must be
understood first.
Step 1: The sun Creates Solar Radiation
 The sun is simply a giant mass of hundreds of billions of very hot and very fast gas particles
called atoms that form a plasma. These atoms bounce around at thousands of miles a second in
the sun until BOOM, the gas atoms collide with one another. What transpires next is something
called nuclear fusion. When the atoms hit one another at
such great speeds the atoms actually combine together to
form heavier gases made up of more atoms! The end result of
this formation of new elements results in an incredible
release of heat and energy in the form of thermal emissions.
These thermal emissions are ultimately what produces
something called solar radiation which is constantly shot
out into space after each new fusion of gas particles.

Step 2: The Radiation is shot into Space


 From there the radiation travels millions of miles into space Figure 1 – How the sun makes Radiation
in waves of energy comprised of tiny particles called
photons. These photons travel with certain amounts of energy in wave like patterns that humans
perceive as light or electromagnetic radiation. This light eventually falls incident upon the Earth
where the energy it is embodied with is utilized to create electricity.
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Component: The Solar Cell


 Now that the story of how light has energy and travels to Earth has been
told it is time to reveal the main star of the show to see how that energy
is harnessed it to create electricity. This of course would require the use
of the second component of this process, the solar cell system. A solar
cell system is basically just a collection of individual devices called solar
cells. Solar cells are devices made from materials called semiconductors.
Semiconductors are crystalline compounds made out of materials from
the 11th to 16th groups of the periodic table of elements. In these materials
are atoms made from the respective two groups of the semiconductor
Figure 2- Semiconductor
class that make up the material in atomic blocks or unit cells. Materials

 These unit cells are the atomistic representation of how the atoms of
these semiconductor elements bond with one another to form the larger bulk material. When one
atom of a block of the material is replaced with another element’s atom that has one valence
electron less than the atom it replaces, a p type semiconductor material is created. When one
atom of a block is replaced with an atom of an element that has one valence electron more than
the atom it has replaced in the unit cell an n type semiconductor material is created. The
combination of placing n type and p type semiconductor materials over one another is how a
basic solar cell is formed. These combinations of semiconductor materials overlaid with a light
conducting glass and protective coating are what consist of a functional unit of a solar cell
system. When these functional units are drawn out over many columns and rows on a flat
supporting surface and are connected with conductive wiring, a functional solar cell system is
formed. Solar Cell
Step 3: Light hits the Solar Cell Solar Cell System
 The process of converting sunlight into electrical energy
from a solar cell system can be broken down into six Solar Array
critical steps. First solar radiation in the form of traveling
light of a discrete energy must fall incident upon the solar
cell. Then this light must enter the solar cell with enough
energy to penetrate the material or overcome the material’s
band gap energy parameter.

Step 4: Light hits Electron


 Once inside the solar cell the light then has the ability to
knock an electron out of place from one of the solar cell’s
atoms. If hit with enough energy this electron will be
excited and will create an electron hole pair in what is
called the wandering phase of the process in which the
electron will wander around freely in the material. Once a
freely mobile electron has wandered far enough, it has a
chance to escape the solar cells material through the
contacts of the solar cell.

Step 5: Electron Escapes and Current is


Generated
 The flow of this electron out from the material to the solar
cell’s contacts and into an AC to DC inverter is what produces Figure 3- Diagram of Solar Cell, Materials and
what is called an electrical current which gives rise to electrical Visualization of Light Penetration
energy!
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Glossary
 Quantomechanical – A physical interaction occurring on the atomistic level.
 Solar radiation – an electromagnetic wave of intense heat and energy.
 Atoms – The most basic unit that makes up matter.
 Plasma – A high temperature collection of gaseous ions of equal numbers half positive and
negative.
 Nuclear fusion – The process by which two atoms collide, their nuclei combine to produce a
new element consisting of a nucleus of a higher number of protons and neutrons and
extreme heat and energy are released.
 Thermal emissions – sudden release of hot atoms as a result of collisions.
 Photons – subatomic particles that make up light.
 Electromagnetic radiation – A broad physical phenomenon that encompasses all light.
 Crystalline compounds – A three-dimensional arrangement of atoms of two or more
elements that represents their bonding lattice structure.
 p type semiconductor – A semiconductor material that lacks an excess of a valence electron
from its atoms.
 n type semiconductor – A semiconductor material that has an excess of a valence electron
from its atoms.
 Band gap energy parameter – The energy difference between an Semiconductor material
atom’s highest band energy, the conduction band and the lowest band energy, the valence
band.
 Electron hole pair – A quantomechanical phenomenon in which the absence of an electron
(a hole) and the presence of an electron are tied together for a short period in space and
time.
 Contacts of the solar cell – Conductive metal insertions into a solar cell system that allow
freed electrons to be collected.
 DC to AC inverter – An electrical device that takes an input voltage of a constant signal and
transforms it into a sinusoidal, varying signal. (Which is how the energy in the grid runs)
 Current – The flow of electrons.
 Electrical energy – The potential buildup of energy due to the storage of electricity.
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References
 Figure.1
https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiKiuqJ7
53eAhUDhOAKHfCMB5sQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Frampages.us%2Fabadkea%2F201
6%2F05%2F03%2Fnuclear-chemistry%2F&psig=AOvVaw10-
fvBmD78aht_vMr39KKl&ust=1540428902067431

 Figure. 2
https://www.pveducation.org/pvcdrom/semiconductor-materials

 Figure.3
http://www.truthistreason.net/how-do-solar-panels-work