Sunday, April 22, 2007

Solar Cells

A solar cell or photovoltaic cell is a device that converts light energy into electrical energy. Sometimes the term solar cell is reserved for devices intended specifically to capture energy from sunlight, while the term photovoltaic cell is used when the light source is unspecified.

Fundamentally, the device needs to fulfill only two functions - Photogeneration of Charge Carriers (electrons and holes) in a light-absorbing material, and Separation of the Charge Carriers to a conductive contact that will transmit the electricity. This conversion is called the photovoltaic effect, and the field of research related to solar cells is known as photovoltaics.

Solar cells have many applications. They have long been used in situations where electrical power from the grid is unavailable, such as in remote area power systems, Earth-orbiting satellites and space probes, consumer systems, e.g. handheld calculators or wrist watches, remote radiotelephones and water pumping applications. More recently, they are starting to be used in assemblies of solar modules (photovoltaic arrays) connected to the electricity grid through an inverter, often in combination with a net metering arrangement. Solar cells are regarded as one of the key technologies towards a sustainable energy supply.

Thin-film solar cells use less than 1% of the raw material (silicon or other light absorbers) compared to wafer based solar cells, leading to a significant price drop per kWh. There are many research groups around the world actively researching different thin-film approaches and/or materials, however it remains to be seen if these solutions can generate the same space-efficiency as traditional silicon processing.

One particularly promising technology is crystalline silicon thin films on glass substrates. This technology makes use of the advantages of crystalline silicon as a solar cell material, with the cost savings of using a thin-film approach. Another interesting aspect of thin-film solar cells is the possibility to deposit the cells on all kind of materials, including flexible substrates (PET, for example), which opens a new dimension for new applications.

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