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How Solar Panels Work

So How Exactly Do Solar Panels Work ?

With energy costs soaring, and everything from MP3 players to blinking construction signs needing power, it’s no surprise that solar panels are becoming a viable alternative for producing energy. They look simple enough. Large, space-aged, waffle looking blue panels perched on top of a house or light pole. Cue the sun, and voila! you’ve got energy.

The real story is a little more involved, but not terribly complicated. It’s all about making friends with silicon and its atoms and their tendencies.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

A solar cell, or photovoltaic cell, is actually comprised of two layers. Kind of like a waffle sandwich. Both layers are made from silicon. In its purest form, silicon is electromagnetically neutral, making it an ideal base for a solar panel.

In a simplified example, silicon has eight arms, or room for eight electrons. Four of these electrons are already present in silicon’s natural state. So that leaves four more of them looking to link up with another friend. When a silicon atom finds another silicon atom, all eight of their lonely electron arms link up with each other forming a very strong bond. However, this bond is neutral. And a neutral bond doesn’t generate electricity.

So, we give silicon a lopsided friend named phosphorous. Phosphorous has five free electrons to bond with silicon’s four. The four from each element do indeed link up forming that strong bond, but now there is a leftover electron just hanging out. The top layer in our waffle sandwich solar panel is made from silicon mixed with phosphorous. So the top layer has a whole lot of happy, four electron bonds, each with its own lonely electron, or fifth wheel, so to speak. This extra electron gives our top waffle layer a negative charge. Hold on to that thought.

The bottom layer of our waffle solar panel sandwich is silicon mixed with boron. Boron only has three free electrons but still likes to bond with silicon. So our silicon, with room for four electrons, is left looking for another electron to fill up the empty hole. This gives the bottom layer of our waffle sandwich a positive charge.

Light it up!

Electricity is generated when electrons move from a negative charge to a positive one. So we need something to break that lonely extra electron away from the top layer’s silicon/phosphorous bond and point it in the direction of that bottom layer’s silicon/boron bond that has room for it. And now the moment we’ve all been waiting for . . . Cue the sun!

The sun’s rays are full of all types of particles. But solar (photovoltaic) panels are interested in, you guessed it, the photon particle. A photon particle comes flying in like a jackhammer looking to chisel away anything that’s loose. It knocks off that extra electron from the top layer’s silicon/phosphorous bond and sends it floating around looking for a place to land.

That wandering electron is drawn to the empty hole on the bottom layer’s silicon/boron bond, and it moves from the negative top waffle layer to the positive bottom waffle layer, creating that magical energy.

Conductive wiring is placed in between the two solar panel layers to capture the transferring energy from the traveling electrons, helping to turn it into electrical power. The conductive wiring runs from the solar panels into a charge converter. From there, the electrical current is sent to a deep-cycle battery to generate DC power or to an inverter to create AC power.

It’s Not All Sunshine and Roses

The amount of energy created by a solar cell isn’t very much, though. So a calculator, for instance, which doesn’t need very much juice, can run off of a simple small photovoltaic cell. But a house or business is another matter. The amount of energy generated is in direct proportion to the surface area of the panel. The larger the waffle sandwich, the more electricity it will produce.

Other factors also affect a photovoltaic panel’s efficiency. The angle and direction of the sun can affect the output by as much as 50%. If at all possible, solar panels should be placed on a south facing roof for maximum sun exposure. Tracking systems can be installed but are quite expensive. In order to make the most of the sun’s ray, panels are often installed with an angle matching the latitude of the location.

Of course, sunlight doesn’t just contain those crazy jackhammer photons. Each ray of sunshine also sends both ultraviolet and infrared waves. These can break down the materials of the panels themselves.

Weather conditions will further damage the exposed panels decreasing their output. A glass layer is usually placed over the top to protect the panels. Silicon can also be quite reflective, so a film is often painted over the top so the panel can absorb as much sunlight as possible without sending it back out to space.

And finally, cloud cover doesn’t do much for solar power. Most systems have redundant options, tapping into the electric grid as needed or drawing on battery or generator power to cover the days when the sun just doesn’t shine.

Solar panels are remarkable in their simplicity of concept and sleek design. They are a real alternative to producing electricity. And as the designs become more and more sophisticated, the efficiency increases as well. The startup costs of installing photovoltaic cells are not insignificant, but a good system will last 20 years or more. The technology is constantly improving, promising to make solar power not only more accessible, but truly a viable option for creating clean and efficient energy for the masses. At least as long as the sun shines.