|MadSci Network: Chemistry|
Hello Raj, Photovoltaic (or PV) systems convert light energy into electricity. The term "photo" stems from the Greek "phos," which means "light." "Volt" is named for Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), a pioneer in the study of electricity. "Photo-voltaics," then, could literally mean "light- electricity." Most commonly known as "solar cells," PV systems are already an important part of our lives. The simplest systems power many of the small calculators and wrist watches we use every day. More complicated systems provide electricity for pumping water, powering communications equipment, and even lighting our homes and running our appliances. In a surprising number of cases, PV power is the cheapest form of electricity for performing these tasks. The most important parts of a solar cell are the semiconductor layers, because this is where the electron current is created. There are a number of different materials suitable for making these semiconducting layers, and each has benefits and drawbacks. Unfortunately, there is no one ideal material for all types of cells and applications. In addition to the semiconducting materials, solar cells consist of a top metallic grid or other electrical contact to collect electrons from the semiconductor and transfer them to the external load, and a back contact layer to complete the electrical circuit. Then, on top of the complete cell is typically a glass cover or other type of transparent encapsulant to seal the cell and keep weather out, and an antireflective coating to keep the cell from reflecting the light back away from the cell. The "photovoltaic effect" is the basic physical process through which a PV cell converts sunlight into electricity. Sunlight is composed of photons, or particles of solar energy. These photons contain various amounts of energy corresponding to the different wavelengths of the solar spectrum. When photons strike a PV cell, they may be reflected or absorbed, or they may pass right through. Only the absorbed photons generate electricity. When this happens, the energy of the photon is transferred to an electron in an atom of the cell (which is actually a semiconductor). With its newfound energy, the electron is able to escape from its normal position associated with that atom to become part of the current in an electrical circuit. By leaving this position, the electron causes a "hole" to form. Special electrical properties of the PV cell--a built-in electric field--provide the voltage needed to drive the current through an external load (such as a light bulb). To induce the electric field within a PV cell, two separate semiconductors are sandwiched together. The "p" and "n" types of semiconductors correspond to "positive" and "negative" because of their abundance of holes or electrons (the extra electrons make an "n" type because an electron actually has a negative charge). Although both materials are electrically neutral, n-type silicon has excess electrons and p-type silicon has excess holes. Sandwiching these together creates a p/n junction at their interface, thereby creating an electric field. When the p-type and n-type semiconductors are sandwiched together, the excess electrons in the n-type material flow to the p-type, and the holes thereby vacated during this process flow to the n-type. (The concept of a hole moving is somewhat like looking at a bubble in a liquid. Although it's the liquid that is actually moving, it's easier to describe the motion of the bubble as it moves in the opposite direction.) Through this electron and hole flow, the two semiconductors act as a battery, creating an electric field at the surface where they meet (known as the "junction"). It's this field that causes the electrons to jump from the semiconductor out toward the surface and make them available for the electrical circuit. At this same time, the holes move in the opposite direction, toward the positive surface, where they await incoming electrons. The most common way of making p-type or n-type silicon material is to add an element that has an extra electron or is lacking an electron. In silicon, we use a process called "doping." Silicon was the semiconductor material used in the earliest successful PV devices, and is still the most widely used PV material, and, although other PV materials and designs exploit the PV effect in slightly different ways, knowing how the effect works in crystalline silicon gives us a basic understanding of how it works in all devices. In a PV cell, photons are absorbed in the p layer. It's very important to "tune" this layer to the properties of the incoming photons to absorb as many as possible and thereby free as many electrons as possible. Another challenge is to keep the electrons from meeting up with holes and "recombining" with them before they can escape the cell. To do this, we design the material so that the electrons are freed as close to the junction as possible, so that the electric field can help send them through the "conduction" layer (the n layer) and out into the electric circuit. By maximizing all these characteristics, we improve the conversion efficiency of the PV cell. For more information on photovoltaics, check out the following site on the web: US Department of Energy PV Program
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