What Is The Role Of Solar Cell?

A solar cell is an electrical device that converts sunlight directly into electricity. Also known as a photovoltaic cell, it is the basic building block of a solar panel or module.

The first solar cell was built in 1883 by Charles Fritts, who coated selenium with a thin layer of gold to form the junctions. In the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs developed the first practical photovoltaic cell made of silicon, ushering in the era of solar power generation.

Over the past few decades, solar power has become an increasingly important renewable energy source. The costs of solar cells and panels have decreased dramatically, while efficiency has continued to improve. Today, solar energy powers everything from small electronics up to large utility-scale projects.

Solar cells and panels have diverse applications in places where access to the electric grid is limited, such as remote locations, space & telecommunications, transportation, and even architecture & design. The modular nature of solar power allows it to scale easily. With concerns about climate change and energy security growing globally, solar power is poised to become one of the major electricity sources of the future.

How Solar Cells Work

Solar cells generate electricity through the photovoltaic effect, which is a process that converts sunlight directly into electricity. When light shines onto a solar cell, the photons from the sunlight are absorbed by the semiconductor material in the cell. This energizes the electrons in the material and causes them to break free of their atomic bonds. The freed electrons then flow through the material to produce an electric current that can be used as electricity.

The photovoltaic effect relies on special materials inside the solar cell called semiconductors. Silicon is the most common semiconductor used, though there are some solar cells that also utilize other materials like gallium arsenide or cadmium telluride. When a photon hits the solar cell, its energy gets transferred to an electron in the semiconductor, allowing the electron to escape its normal position. The flow of these liberated electrons produces the electric current.

Solar cells have electric fields built into their design that act to force the freed electrons in one direction, creating a DC current. Metal contacts on the solar cell collect the electrons and transfer them into an external circuit for electricity usage or storage in a battery. In this way, the solar cell can directly and immediately convert sunlight into usable electrical energy through the internal photovoltaic effect.

Types of Solar Cells

There are three main types of solar cells used in the production of solar panels:

Silicon Cells

Silicon solar cells are the most common type used today. They are made from silicon wafers that act as semiconductors to convert sunlight into electricity. There are two main types of silicon cells:

  • Monocrystalline silicon cells – Made from single crystalline silicon, these have the highest efficiency rates (15-20%) but are more expensive.
  • Polycrystalline silicon cells – Made from multiple silicon crystals, these are cheaper but have a slightly lower efficiency (13-16%).

Pros of silicon cells are their stability and proven technology. Cons are their rigidness and higher costs compared to thin film.

Thin Film Cells

Thin film solar cells are made by depositing photovoltaic material in thin layers onto surfaces like glass or plastic. Types of thin film cells include:

  • Cadmium telluride (CdTe)
  • Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS)
  • Amorphous silicon (a-Si)

Thin film cells are flexible, lightweight, and easy to install. Their efficiency ranges from 7-13%. Pros are the low cost and flexibility. Cons are the lower efficiency and durability compared to silicon.

solar cells convert sunlight into renewable electricity

Organic Cells

Organic solar cells use organic electronics, plastics and other carbon-based compounds to absorb sunlight. They can be made into thin, flexible and transparent cells. Their efficiency is low at around 5-9% currently. Pros are flexibility, transparency, and low costs. Cons are very low efficiency and stability.

Solar Cell Efficiency

Solar cell efficiency refers to the percentage of sunlight that a solar cell can convert into electricity. This percentage varies widely depending on the type of solar cell technology.

The most common solar cells on the market today have efficiencies in the range of 15% to 22%. More advanced solar cell designs can reach higher efficiencies, with lab prototypes achieving over 40% efficiency. However, higher efficiency usually comes at a higher manufacturing cost.

There are several factors that affect a solar cell’s efficiency:

  • The semiconductor materials used in the solar cell – Materials like monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, gallium arsenide and perovskites have different efficiency potentials.
  • The quality and purity of the semiconductor – Defects and impurities in the semiconductor can reduce efficiency.
  • The cell design and architecture – Multi-junction cells, back-contact cells and other innovative designs can improve efficiency.
  • The percentage of the solar spectrum absorbed – Multi-junction cells absorb more of the light spectrum.
  • The temperature of the cell – Solar cells work best at cooler temperatures.

There is a lot of research focused on increasing the efficiency of solar cells. Some promising recent advances include:

  • Perovskite solar cells – These have achieved lab efficiencies over 25% in just a few years of development.
  • Quantum dot solar cells – These use quantum dots to increase electrical production from each photon.
  • Nanostructured designs – Nanostructures like wires or wells help trap light and reduce energy loss.
  • Hybrid designs – Combining different materials can optimize light absorption and charge collection.

While high efficiencies are desirable, other factors like manufacturing costs and reliability also impact the adoption of new solar technologies. The most cost-effective cells today tend to have modest efficiencies but low production and installation expenses.

Manufacturing Solar Cells

Solar cells are made from semiconductor materials like silicon. The manufacturing process starts with the raw silicon material, which can be obtained from sources like quartzite gravel or recycled silicon. The silicon is then purified through multiple chemical cleaning and distillation steps to reach the high levels of purity required for solar cells.

Once purified, the silicon is grown into crystalline ingots or blocks using a process called the Czochralski process. The ingots are sliced into thin wafers about 0.2mm thick. These wafers are then processed to introduce impurities that change the electrical properties of the silicon to make them useful for capturing light energy.

The most common manufacturing process is to use phosphorus and boron to dope the silicon into n-type and p-type semiconductors. The junction between these two layers enables the photovoltaic effect. Contacts are added to the front and back of the cell to allow current to flow.

At each step of the manufacturing process, solar cell makers employ strict quality control measures to ensure the purity of materials, integrity of crystal growth, efficiency of electrical doping, and performance of the finished solar cell. Automated optical inspection systems and electrical testing under simulated sunlight helps to catch and correct defects during manufacturing.

Continual improvements in solar cell fabrication methods have increased the efficiency and lowered the costs of solar cells. Some advanced manufacturing techniques like thin film deposition allow solar cells to be made very thin and flexible.

Applications of Solar Cells

Solar cells have many applications that take advantage of their ability to generate electricity from sunlight. Some of the main uses for solar cells are:

Off-Grid Uses

Solar cells can provide electricity in remote locations that are not connected to the utility grid. Off-grid solar applications include solar panels on spacecrafts, satellites, remote cabins, RV vehicles, boats, and more. Off-grid systems store solar energy in batteries for use when the sun is not shining.


Homeowners are increasingly installing rooftop solar panel systems to reduce their electricity bills. Excess solar electricity can be fed back into the grid. Solar panels combined with batteries allow homes to disconnect from the grid entirely.


Businesses are major adopters of solar energy for distributed power generation. Rooftop solar provides electricity, while parking lot shade structures covered with solar panels can provide additional clean power.


Large solar farms owned by utility companies generate massive amounts of centralized solar power. These are connected to the transmission grid to provide solar electricity to widespread areas. Utility-scale solar energy is expanding rapidly as costs fall.

Installing Solar Panels

Installing solar panels on your home or business allows you to generate your own renewable electricity and reduce your energy bills. While professional installation is recommended, it is also possible for a homeowner to self-install solar panels.


Solar panels are mounted on roof racks or frames to hold them in place and angle them towards the sun. The mounting hardware needs to be able to withstand wind, snow loads, and seismic activity. Rooftop solar systems require watertight flashing and seals to prevent leaks. Ground-mount systems use poles driven into the ground or concrete foundations.


DC cables connect the solar panels into strings, which feed into an inverter. The inverter converts the DC electricity into AC power for your home. Additional wires then connect the inverter to your electrical panel. Proper wiring size and connections are critical for efficiency and safety.


Most local jurisdictions require permits for solar installations to ensure they meet electrical and building codes. The permitting process involves an application, review, and on-site inspection. Homeowners can usually obtain permits for their own DIY solar projects.


Solar panels generally require little maintenance over their 25+ year lifespan. However, it’s important to keep them clean and clear of debris or shade to maximize production. Inspect wiring connections periodically and check for rodent damage. Have a professional service the inverter as needed.

Costs and Benefits

Installing a solar panel system can have significant upfront costs. The average cost of solar panel installation ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 for an average-sized home, though prices vary greatly by region and incentives. Despite the high initial investment, solar panels can provide savings over the long run.

The payback period for solar panels – the time it takes to recoup installation costs through energy savings – is anywhere from 5 to 15 years for a typical residential system. Many factors affect the payback period, including solar panel system costs, the amount of sunlight in your area, energy prices in your region, and available tax credits and incentives.

The federal government and many state/local governments offer incentives like tax credits and rebates to make solar panel installation more affordable. The federal solar tax credit currently covers 26% of solar system costs through 2032. Some utility companies also give rebates for installing solar panels. These savings can greatly reduce the payback period.

Beyond financial savings, solar energy provides environmental benefits. Generating your own renewable electricity reduces your home’s dependence on fossil fuels. Widespread adoption of residential solar would reduce air and water pollution from coal and natural gas power plants.

The Future of Solar

As solar technology continues to advance, there are several key areas of innovation that are likely to shape the future landscape of solar power:

Improving efficiency – Researchers are exploring a variety of new solar cell designs and materials, including multi-junction cells, quantum dot cells, and perovskites, that have the potential to reach higher efficiencies than traditional silicon cells. Lab tests have already achieved over 40% efficiency with some new multi-junction cells.

New technologies – Emerging technologies like building-integrated photovoltaics, floating solar arrays, solar paints, and solar windows are unlocking new ways to deploy solar across infrastructure and surfaces. Advances in nanotechnology and material science will further expand possible applications.

Growth projections – Solar energy is one of the fastest growing renewable sources. Total global solar capacity is expected to reach over 1,000 gigawatts by 2023 and continue rapid growth through 2030 and beyond. As costs decrease and new technologies emerge, solar has immense potential for wider adoption.

With increased investment in R&D, supportive government policies, and rising deployment, solar power has a very bright future ahead as a mainstream energy source that can help mitigate climate change and build a more sustainable world.


In summary, solar cells play a vital role in harnessing renewable energy from the sun. As solar technology continues to improve and costs come down, solar power is growing dramatically around the world. Solar energy has huge potential to provide clean, sustainable electricity to homes, businesses, and the grid. With solar cell efficiency and manufacturing improving, solar electricity is becoming competitive with fossil fuels. While still a small percentage of total energy production, solar power is expanding exponentially as an energy source of the future. Solar energy will be key in the global transition to renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With further advances in technology and deployment, solar power is poised to play an ever increasing role in our energy mix.

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