How much energy can we get from the Sun?
Solar power is amazing. On average, every square meter of Earth's surface receives 164 watts of solar energy (a figure we'll explain in more detail in a moment). In other words, you could stand a really powerful (150 watt) table lamp on every square meter of Earth's surface and light up the whole planet with the Sun's energy! Or, to put it another way, if we covered just one percent of the Sahara desert with solar panels, we could generate enough electricity to power the whole world. That's the good thing about solar power: there's an awful lot of it—much more than we could ever use.
But there's a downside too. The energy the Sun sends out arrives on Earth as a mixture of light and heat. Both of these are incredibly important—the light makes plants grow, providing us with food, while the heat keeps us warm enough to survive—but we can't use either the Sun's light or heat directly to run a television or a car. We have to find some way of converting solar energy into other forms of energy we can use more easily, such as electricity. And that's exactly what solar cells do.
What are solar cells?
A solar cell is an electronic device that catches sunlight and turns it directly into electricity. It's about the size of an adult's palm, octagonal in shape, and colored bluish black. Solar cells are often bundled together to make larger units called solar modules, themselves coupled into even bigger units known as solar panels (the black- or blue-tinted slabs you see on people's homes—typically with several hundred individual solar cells per roof) or chopped into chips (to provide power for small gadgets like pocket calculators and digital watches).
How are solar cells made?
Silicon is the stuff from which the transistors (tiny switches) in microchips are made—and solar cells work in a similar way. Silicon is a type of material called a semiconductor. Some materials, notably metals, allow electricity to flow through them very easily; they are called conductors. Other materials, such as plastics and wood, don't really let electricity flow through them at all; they are called insulators. Semiconductors like silicon are neither conductors nor insulators: they don't normally conduct electricity, but under certain circumstances we can make them do so.
A solar cell is a sandwich of two different layers of silicon that have been specially treated or doped so they will let electricity flow through them in a particular way. The lower layer is doped so it has slightly too few electrons. It's called p-type or positive-type silicon (because electrons are negatively charged and this layer has too few of them). The upper layer is doped the opposite way to give it slightly too many electrons. It's called n-type or negative-type silicon. (You can read more about semiconductors and doping in our articles on transistors and integrated circuits.)
When we place a layer of n-type silicon on a layer of p-type silicon, a barrier is created at the junction of the two materials (the all-important border where the two kinds of silicon meet up). No electrons can cross the barrier so, even if we connect this silicon sandwich to a flashlight, no current will flow: the bulb will not light up. But if we shine light onto the sandwich, something remarkable happens. We can think of the light as a stream of energetic "light particles" called photons. As photons enter our sandwich, they give up their energy to the atoms in the silicon. The incoming energy knocks electrons out of the lower, p-type layer so they jump across the barrier to the n-type layer above and flow out around the circuit. The more light that shines, the more electrons jump up and the more current flows.
How do solar cells work?
A solar cell is a sandwich of n-type silicon (blue) and p-type silicon (red). It generates electricity by using sunlight to make electrons hop across the junction between the different flavors of silicon:
- When sunlight shines on the cell, photons (light particles) bombard the upper surface.
- The photons (yellow blobs) carry their energy down through the cell.
- The photons give up their energy to electrons (green blobs) in the lower, p-type layer.
- The electrons use this energy to jump across the barrier into the upper, n-type layer and escape out into the circuit.
- Flowing around the circuit, the electrons make the lamp light up.
How efficient are solar cells?
A basic rule of physics called the law of conservation of energy says that we can't magically create energy or make it vanish into thin air; all we can do is convert it from one form to another. That means a solar cell can't produce any more electrical energy than it receives each second as light. In practice, as we'll see shortly, most cells convert about 10–20 percent of the energy they receive into electricity. A typical, single-junction silicon solar cell has a theoretical maximum efficiency of about 30 percent, known as the Shockley-Queisser limit. That's essentially because sunlight contains a broad mixture of photons of different wavelengths and energies and any single-junction solar cell will be optimized to catch photons only within a certain frequency band, wasting the rest. Some of the photons striking a solar cell don't have enough energy to knock out electrons, so they're effectively wasted, while some have too much energy, and the excess is also wasted. The very best, cutting-edge laboratory cells can manage 46 percent efficiency in absolutely perfect conditions using multiple junctions to catch photons of different energies.
Real-world domestic solar panels might achieve an efficiency of about 15 percent, give a percentage point here or there, and that's unlikely to get much better. First-generation, single-junction solar cells aren't going to approach the 30 percent efficiency of the Shockley-Queisser limit, never mind the lab record of 46 percent. All kinds of pesky real-world factors will eat into the nominal efficiency, including the construction of the panels, how they are positioned and angled, whether they're ever in shadow, how clean you keep them, how hot they get (increasing temperatures tend to lower their efficiency), and whether they're ventilated (allowing air to circulate underneath) to keep them cool.
Chart: Efficiencies of solar cells compared: The very first solar cell scraped in at a mere 6 percent efficiency; the most efficient one that's been produced to date managed 46 percent in laboratory conditions. Most cells are first-generation types that can manage about 15 percent in theory and probably 8 percent in practice.
Types of photovoltaic solar cells
Most of the solar cells you'll see on people's roofs today are essentially just silicon sandwiches, specially treated ("doped") to make them better electrical conductors. Scientists refer to these classic solar cells as first-generation, largely to differentiate them from two different, more modern technologies known as second- and third-generation. So what's the difference?
About 90 percent of the world's solar cells are made from wafers of crystalline silicon (abbreviated c-Si), sliced from large ingots, which are grown in super-clean laboratories in a process that can take up to a month to complete. The ingots either take the form of single crystals (monocrystalline or mono-Si) or contain multiple crystals (polycrystalline, multi-Si or poly c-Si). First-generation solar cells work like we've shown in the box up above: they use a single, simple junction between n-type and p-type silicon layers, which are sliced from separate ingots. So an n-type ingot would be made by heating chunks of silicon with small amounts of phosphorus, antimony, or arsenic as the dopant, while a p-type ingot would use boron as the dopant. Slices of n-type and p-type silicon are then fused to make the junction. A few more bells and whistles are added (like an antireflective coating, which improves light absorption and gives photovoltaic cells their characteristic blue color, protective glass on front and a plastic backing, and metal connections so the cell can be wired into a circuit), but a simple p-n junction is the essence of most solar cells. It's pretty much how all photovoltaic silicon solar cells have worked since 1954, which was when scientists at Bell Labs pioneered the technology: shining sunlight on silicon extracted from sand, they generated electricity.
Classic solar cells are relatively thin wafers—usually a fraction of a millimeter deep (about 200 micrometers, 200μm, or so). But they're absolute slabs compared to second-generation cells, popularly known as thin-film solar cells (TPSC) or thin-film photovoltaics (TFPV), which are about 100 times thinner again (several micrometers or millionths of a meter deep). Although most are still made from silicon (a different form known as amorphous silicon, a-Si, in which atoms are arranged randomly instead of precisely ordered in a regular crystalline structure), some are made from other materials, notably cadmium-telluride (Cd-Te) and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS). Because they're extremely thin, light, and flexible, second-generation solar cells can be laminated onto windows, skylights, roof tiles, and all kinds of "substrates" (backing materials) including metals, glass, and polymers (plastics). What second-generation cells gain in flexibility, they sacrifice in efficiency: classic, first-generation solar cells still outperform them. So while a top-notch first-generation cell might achieve an efficiency of 15–20 percent, amorphous silicon struggles to get above 7 percent, the best thin-film Cd-Te cells only manage about 11 percent, and CIGS cells do no better than 7–12 percent. That's one reason why, despite their practical advantages, second-generation cells have so far made relatively little impact on the solar market.
The latest technologies combine the best features of first and second generation cells. Like first-generation cells, they promise relatively high efficiencies (30 percent or more). Like second-generation cells, they're more likely to be made from materials other than "simple" silicon, such as amorphous silicon, organic polymers (making organic photovoltaics, OPVs), perovskite crystals, and feature multiple junctions (made from multiple layers of different semiconducting materials). Ideally, that would make them cheaper, more efficient, and more practical than either first- or second-generation cells.
How much power can we make with solar cells?
In theory, a huge amount. Let's forget solar cells for the moment and just consider pure sunlight. Up to 1000 watts of raw solar power hits each square meter of Earth pointing directly at the Sun (that's the theoretical power of direct midday sunlight on a cloudless day—with the solar rays firing perpendicular to Earth's surface and giving maximum illumination or insolation, as it's technically known). In practice, after we've corrected for the tilt of the planet and the time of day, the best we're likely to get is maybe 100–250 watts per square meter in typical northern latitudes (even on a cloudless day). That translates into about 2–6 kWh per day (depending on whether you're in a northern region like Canada or Scotland or somewhere more obliging such as Arizona or Mexico). Multiplying up for a whole year's production gives us somewhere between 700 and 2500 kWh per square meter (700–2500 units of electricity). Hotter regions clearly have much greater solar potential: the Middle East, for example, receives around 50–100 percent more useful solar energy each year than Europe.