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How Do Solar Panels Work?

– New York, NY


Although many young minds are aware of the innovation behind solar panels, it is not always discussed. Solar energy can impact the future of our environment, and its scientific process can be quite interesting to investigate. Solar panels are essentially used to collect light energy from the sun and create electricity through photovoltaics (PV). There are different types of PV cells, but they all use semiconductors that depend on photons from the Sun in order to generate an electric current. Solar panels almost resemble a window and are useful for many implementations such as remote control systems and telecommunications equipment. More importantly, businesses use these technologies to save money and improve efficiency.


Far before the first celebrated Earth Day on April 22nd, 1970, scientists made the first discoveries in solar energy. In 1839, it all began with Edmond Becquerel, a young physicist working in France, who discovered the photovoltaic effect. A few decades later, French mathematician Augustin Mouchot was inspired by the physicist’s work, so he began registering patents for solar-powered engines in the 1860s. On April 25th, 1954, Bell Labs announced the invention of silicon solar panels. They showed their design by solar powering a small toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter. Afterward, The New York Times noted that the silicon solar cell “may mark the beginning of a new era.” The first silicon solar cells were quite expensive and initial efforts at commercialization were not a huge success. However, within a few years, solar cells were frequently used for satellites and other applications.


The shorthand version of the physical science behind the concept of solar panels includes a few steps. When sunlight hits the semiconductor in the solar cell, the energy from the light is absorbed, striking a number of electrons. The solar cell is specifically designed with positively and negatively charged semiconductors combined to create an electric field. This field forces the electrons to flow in a specific direction towards the conductive metal plates that border the cell. This flow is known as an energy current, and the strength of the current determines how much electricity each cell can produce. Once the loose electrons hit the metal plates, the current is then directed into wires, allowing the electrons to flow like they would in any other electrical source. Solar panels generate direct current (DC) electricity, but the majority of electricity consumers need alternating current (AC) electricity to power their buildings. Thus, an inverter switches the electricity from DC to AC, making it accessible for everyday use. After the electricity is transformed into a usable state, AC power, it is sent from the inverter to the electrical panel, also known as the breaker box. Finally, the electricity is now available to power lights, appliances, and other electrical devices with solar energy.


Solar panels are progressing further; like always, there is more to learn about how scientific research and environmentally-friendly objects intersect in our everyday lives.


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