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When did solar panels become a thing?

Dec. 06, 2023
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April 25, 1954: Bell Labs Demonstrates the First Practical Silicon Solar Cell

Solar cells, which convert sunlight into electrical current, had their beginnings more than a hundred years ago, though early solar cells were too inefficient to be of much use. In April, 1954, researchers at Bell Laboratories demonstrated the first practical silicon solar cell.

The story of solar cells goes back to an early observation of the photovoltaic effect in 1839. French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, son of physicist Antoine Cesar Becquerel and father of physicist Henri Becquerel, was working with metal electrodes in an electrolyte solution when he noticed that small electric currents were produced when the metals were exposed to light, but he couldn’t explain the effect.

Several decades later, in 1873, Willoughby Smith, an English engineer, discovered the photoconductivity of selenium while testing materials for underwater telegraph cables. In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts made the first solar cells from selenium. Though Fritts had hoped his solar cells might compete with Edison’s coal-fired power plants, they were less than one percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity and thus not very practical. Some research on selenium photovoltaics continued for the next several decades, and a few applications were found, but they were not put to widespread use.

The next major advance in solar cell technology was made in 1940 by Russell Shoemaker Ohl, a semiconductor researcher at Bell Labs. He had been investigating some silicon samples, one of which had a crack in the middle. He noticed that in this particular sample, current flowed through this sample when it was exposed to light. This crack, which had probably formed when the sample was made, actually marked the boundary between regions containing different levels of impurities, so one side was positively doped and the other side negatively doped. Ohl had inadvertently made a p-n junction, the basis of a solar cell. Excess positive charge builds up on one side of the p-n barrier, and excess negative charge builds up on the other side of the barrier, creating an electric field. When the cell is hooked up in a circuit, an incoming photon that hits the cell can then give an electron a kick and start current flowing. Ohl patented his solar cell, which was about one percent efficient. 

The first practical silicon solar cell was created thirteen years later by a team of scientists working together at Bell Labs.

In 1953, engineer Daryl Chapin, who had previously been working on magnetic materials at Bell Labs, was trying to develop a source of power for telephone systems in remote humid locations, where dry cell batteries degraded too quickly. Chapin investigated several alternative energy sources, and settled on solar power as one of the most promising. He tried selenium solar cells, but found them too inefficient. 

Meanwhile, Calvin Fuller, a chemist, and Gerald Pearson, a physicist, were working on controlling the properties of semiconductors by introducing impurities. Fuller gave Pearson a piece of silicon containing gallium impurities. Pearson dipped it in lithium, creating a p-n junction. Pearson then hooked up an ammeter to the piece of silicon and shined a light on it. The ammeter jumped significantly, to their surprise. 

Pearson, who was aware of Chapin’s work, went and told his friend not to waste any more time on selenium solar cells, and Chapin immediately switched to silicon.

The three then worked for several months on improving the properties of their silicon solar cells. One problem was the difficulty in making good electrical contacts with the silicon cells. Another problem was that at room temperature, lithium migrated through the silicon over time, moving the p-n junction farther away from the incoming sunlight. To solve that problem, they tried different impurities, and eventually settled on arsenic and boron, which created a p-n junction that stayed near the surface. They also found they were able to make good electrical contacts with the boron-arsenic silicon sells. After making some other improvements to the design, they linked together several solar cells to create what they called a “solar battery.”

Bell Labs announced the invention on April 25, 1954 in Murray Hill, New Jersey. They demonstrated their solar panel by using it to power a small toy Ferris wheel and a solar powered radio transmitter.

Those first silicon solar cells were about 6 percent efficient at converting the energy in sunlight into electricity, a huge improvement over any previous solar cells. 

The New York Times wrote that the silicon solar cell “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams–the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

The first silicon solar cells were expensive to produce, and early efforts at commercialization were not initially a huge success. But within a few years solar cells were commonly used to power satellites, and other applications followed.

Chapin soon simplified the process of making silicon solar cells and even developed a solar cell science experiment for high school students. Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.

Solar cells today are used in all sorts of devices, from handheld calculators to rooftop solar panels. Improved designs and advanced materials have made it possible to build solar cells that reach over 40 percent efficiency, and research and development continues with the goal of bringing the cost down and raising the efficiency to make solar power more competitive with fossil fuels.

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We'll explore some of the biggest events that have occurred in the history of solar energy:

Solar panels in outer space

Some of the earliest uses of solar technology were actually in outer space, where solar was used to power satellites. In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite used a tiny one-watt panel to power its radios. Later that year, the Vanguard II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3 were all launched with PV technology on board. In 1964, NASA was responsible for launching the first Nimbus spacecraft, a satellite able to run entirely on a 470-watt solar array. In 1966, NASA launched the world's first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, powered by a one-kilowatt array.

First solar residence

In 1973, the University of Delaware was responsible for constructing the first solar building, named "Solar One." The system ran on a hybrid supply of solar thermal and solar PV power. It was also the first instance of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) – the array didn't use solar panels but instead had solar integrated into the rooftop, similar to the design for Tesla's new roof product.

Achievements in solar conversion efficiency

Between 1957 and 1960, Hoffman Electronics made a number of breakthroughs with photovoltaic efficiency, improving the efficiency record from 8% to 14%. The next major achievement was in 1985 when the University of New South Wales achieved 20% efficiency for silicon cells. In 1999, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory collaborated with SpectroLab Inc. to create a solar cell with 33.3% efficiency. The University of New South Wales broke that record again in 2016 when researchers reached 34.5% efficiency.

Solar-powered airplanes

In 1981, Paul MacCready built Solar Challenger, the first aircraft to run on solar power, and flew it across the English Channel from France to the U.K. In 1998, the remote-controlled solar airplane "Pathfinder" set an altitude record after reaching 80,000 feet. NASA broke that record in 2001 when they reached 96,000 feet with their non-rocket aircraft. In 2016, Bertrand Piccard completed the first zero-emissions flight worldwide with Solar Impulse 2, the world's largest and most powerful solar-powered airplane today.

Solar-powered presidencies

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed in the White House during his term as president. However, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan ordered the White House solar panels to be removed. In 2010, President Barack Obama requested that solar panels and a solar water heater be installed in the White House. Both were installed during Obama's first term.

Cost of solar over time

Prices for solar panels have dropped substantially over the past few decades, leading to a surge in consumer demand that has produced more than one million U.S. installations as of early 2016. In 1956, solar panels cost roughly $300 per watt. By 1975, that figure had dropped to just over $100 a watt. Today, a solar panel can cost as little as $0.50 a watt. Consider this: since the year 1980, solar panel prices have dropped by at least 10 percent every single year. The plummeting cost of solar is largely responsible for the growing popularity of solar and the legitimacy of PV as a reliable energy source in today's world.

When did solar panels become a thing?

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