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First solar cell

Learn About the First Solar Cell

In the modern world, we have seen solar cells used in a variety of applications, such as those commonly used in solar panels for residential energy production. We are also seeing steady scientific progression in the field of solar energy with the experimentation and design of new products. But how exactly did we get to this stage of solar energy use? How and why did humans try to harness solar energy in the first place? Solar technology as we know it today started with the invention of the first photovoltaic cells.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the first solar cell was created. Rather than having a definite point of creation, the solar cell has gone through a series of evolutions since the concept was first conceived. Claiming one particular version of the early photovoltaic cells as the original is a matter of subjective intent. In general, the history of the first solar cells can be divided into two eras: Early experimentation and modern development.

Early Creations

The very first solar cell in existence was created over a century and a half ago. In 1839, a scientist from France, named Edmond Becquerel, developed a solar cell at the ripe age of 19. This crude predecessor to modern solar cells consisted of an acid based solution containing traces of silver chloride. When Becquerel put a light source on the solution, he noticed that it generated an electric current through attached electrodes. Thus, Becquerel is credited with discovering the photovoltaic effect.

Although Becquerel brought the early solar cells to life, they were still not usable in a realistic application. Becquerel's cell generated a trace of energy, but not enough to actual power anything. The structure of the cell was also not movable, and did not have the ability to be attached to any type of electric device. Therefore, although the concept was widely known, it had no practical use as an alternative source of energy.

Other scientists attempted to improve on Becquerel's discovery in subsequent scientific investigations. Forty four years after the discovery of the photovoltaic effect, Charles Fritts converted Becquerel's solution based cell into a solid form. Fritts fashioned new solar cells out of selenium coated with gold. Although this was a great step in creating a somewhat usable photovoltaic cell, it still did not generate enough power to be of use in the real world.

Perhaps the most well known name to contribute to the development of the first solar cells was Albert Einstein. At the beginning of the 20th century, Einstein postulated the photoelectric theory and won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. This rather complicated mathematical theory explains how photoelectrons are emitted when light is shined on certain types of metallic surfaces. Einstein further found that light is not a wave which travels through space. Rather light is composed of packets of energy which contain photons.

The Modern Age of Solar Cells

Solar cells truly reached the modern age in the middle of the twentieth century. Junction semiconductor solar cells where first patented the year 1946. Yet it was not until 1954 until the world first saw a usable version of the solar cell. Some cite the 1954 presentation by Bell Laboratories of as the true birth of solar cells because solar experimentation had finally arrived at something tangible.

The Bell Labs solar cell was primarily composed of silicon. One of Bell's renowned scientists, Gerald Pearson, dipped silicon into lithium and made a p-n junction. Initially the cell suffered from problems with connectivity between the silicon and electric current contact surfaces. Lithium seepage at normal temperatures also pushed back the p-n junction making it inaccessible to the light source. The solutions to both problems was to integrate both boron and arsenic which made for a better contact and helped the p-n junction remain in place.

Prior to the presentation, the Bell team worked hard to come up with a satisfactory design for the "solar battery." Once the device was perfected, they presented its capabilities by linking it to a toy ferris wheel. A radio transmitter, with solar generated power, communicated with the ferris wheel to make it spin. This "grandfather" of all modern solar cells was able to transfer approximately six percent of the energy received from sunlight.

Although a mere 6% power transfer is nothing impressive by today's standards, back then it was a scientific breakthrough. The New York Times reported that the device could help harness the "almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” Clearly, this finding helped propel solar technology research into the future. One of the first real applications of the newly founded solar technology was the creation of solar panels for NASA's space flight vehicles. Use of solar panels on spaceships helped provide a much needed alternative fuel source to run some of the mechanical and electronic functions of the ships.

In contemporary times, we are all familiar with the uses of solar technology. We surely appreciates the efforts of past scientists whenever we reach for a calculator powered by a small solar panel, or when we need a cost-efficient way to heat our swimming pools with solar cells. In today's world, solar cells are a lot more efficient than they were in their beginnings. On average, most solar panels are able to generate around a 40% energy transfer to help us power our favorite gadgets. Hopefully, the future will allow us to increase this capability even more.