You’ve probably seen calculators with solar cells — devices that never need batteries and in some cases, don’t even have an off button. As long as there’s enough light, they seem to work forever. You may also have seen larger solar panels, perhaps on emergency road signs, call boxes, buoys and even in parking lots to power the lights.
Although these larger panels aren’t as common as solar-powered calculators, they’re out there and not that hard to spot if you know where to look. In fact, photovoltaics — which were once used almost exclusively in space, powering satellites’ electrical systems as far back as 1958 — are being used more and more in less exotic ways. The technology continues to pop up in new devices all the time, from sunglasses to electric vehicle charging stations.
The hope for a “solar revolution” has been floating around for decades — the idea that one day we’ll all use free electricity from the sun. This is a seductive promise, because on a bright, sunny day, the sun’s rays give off approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the planet’s surface. If we could collect all of that energy, we could easily power our homes and offices for free.
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.