Who Is Father Of Solar?

Solar energy is renewable energy harness from the sun’s radiation. The search for who was the true pioneer of solar energy and solar technology spans over a century. While many innovative scientists and engineers contributed to early solar research starting in the 19th century, there is debate over who should earn the title “father of solar.” This article explores the history of early solar technology development and profiles key contributors who helped progress photovoltaics and solar power.

Early Solar Research

Early discoveries in light and electricity were crucial stepping stones in the history of solar technology. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, scientists discovered important principles that would enable the future development of solar photovoltaics. For example, in 1839 French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with metal electrodes in electrolyte solutions (Bellis). This groundbreaking finding revealed that electricity could be produced when light interacted with certain materials.

Later, in 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts created the first rudimentary solar cells using selenium wafers, which converted less than 1% of light into electricity (Pearson 4). Though inefficient, this marked an important proof of concept that sunlight could generate usable energy through photovoltaics. Other pioneers like Heinrich Hertz and Wilhelm Hallwachs also made discoveries involving photoelectric effects that paved the way for harnessing solar power (Solar Museum). While early solar cells were primitive, these critical scientific advances established the foundation for the rise of modern photovoltaics.

old photo of charles fritts

Frank Shuman

Frank Shuman was an early pioneer in solar energy technology. In the early 1900s, he developed and patented solar engines that used solar power to generate electricity and pump water. Shuman envisioned solar energy as a viable power source and strove to develop practical applications for it.[1]

One of Shuman’s early designs was a solar-powered pump intended for irrigation in remote areas. The pump used parabolic mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a boiler and drive a steam engine. Shuman formed the Sun Power Company to market this and other solar devices he invented, including a solar-powered printing press. His goal was to demonstrate the potential for solar power to support industry and agriculture.[2]

In 1912, Shuman constructed a large solar engine power station in Meadi, Egypt. The facility used five parabolic mirrors to heat water for steam engines, powering irrigation pumps. The engine operated for 40 years and successfully demonstrated solar energy’s viability for industrial applications on a large scale.[3]

Shuman tirelessly promoted solar energy despite minimal commercial success during his lifetime. His early engine designs were groundbreaking and paved the way for modern solar thermal power.

Charles Fritts

In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts created the first working solar cells made from selenium coated with a thin layer of gold (Bell Labs Demonstrates the First Practical Silicon Solar Cell). Though selenium cells were very inefficient with less than 1% conversion efficiency, Fritts’ solar cells represented a breakthrough as the first devices able to convert sunlight directly into electricity. Fritts had hoped his solar cells could compete commercially with Thomas Edison’s coal-powered electrical systems, but the selenium cells were too inefficient to be practical at the time. Still, Fritts’ selenium solar cell was an important early milestone in photovoltaic technology.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein made revolutionary contributions to the early research into solar technology through his work explaining the photoelectric effect. In 1905, Einstein published a paper that put forth the hypothesis that light energy is carried in discrete quantized packets called photons (1). This groundbreaking concept was able to explain experimental data related to the photoelectric effect that couldn’t be accounted for by the prevailing wave theory of light at the time.

The photoelectric effect refers to the emission of electrons from a metal surface when light shines on it. Einstein’s photon theory was able to explain this phenomenon by proposing that light consists of individual photons or particles of energy, with each photon having a specific amount or quantum of energy. When these photons strike the metal surface, they can transfer their energy to electrons in the metal, giving the electrons enough energy to overcome the attractive forces of the metal atoms and be ejected as photoelectric current.

Einstein’s work quantifying the energy of photons and relating it to the photoelectric effect provided the foundation for understanding how solar cells work to convert light into electricity. His Nobel Prize winning paper introduced the concept of quanta of light that would revolutionize physics and laid the groundwork for exploiting sunlight as a source of power through the photoelectric effect. Einstein’s contributions were pivotal to unlocking the potential of solar energy.

Bell Labs Develops the First Practical Solar Cell

In 1954, researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories created the first practical silicon solar cell. This groundbreaking achievement paved the way for the future growth of solar technology and demonstrated the potential for converting sunlight into electricity on a large scale.

The invention was formally announced by Bell Labs on April 25, 1954 at their Murray Hill, New Jersey facility. To showcase their new silicon solar cell, the researchers used it to power a small toy Ferris wheel and radio transmitter [1]. While rudimentary solar cells had existed prior, Bell’s 6% efficient design marked a major milestone in creating truly functional photovoltaic devices.

Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson were the key Bell scientists behind this breakthrough innovation. By combining silicon semiconductor technology with their expertise in materials science and physics, they successfully engineered the first modern solar power generator. Their work built upon previous solar thermal developments while pioneering the game-changing concept of directly converting sunlight into electricity.

The Bell solar cell opened up tremendous possibilities for power generation and was soon incorporated into early satellite designs. Over subsequent decades, rapid improvements in efficiency and affordability allowed solar photovoltaics to become a mainstream renewable energy source. But it all started with this pioneering leap by Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson at Bell Labs.

Space Applications

Solar energy has played a critical role in space exploration and travel since the 1950s and 60s. According to NASA, solar electric propulsion has long been used to provide power for satellites and space probes. The process relies on solar arrays to collect energy from the sun, which is then used to power ion engines for spacecraft propulsion and on-board systems. Solar energy is especially vital for missions beyond Mars, where sunlight is much weaker than in Earth’s vicinity.

Early space programs like Vanguard 1, launched in 1958, used small solar arrays to power radios and measurement instruments. The space race accelerated solar technology, and by the late 1960s, improved solar cells powered manned missions like Apollo. According to Dynamics Solar, the Apollo command modules had 2 square meters of solar panels, while the lunar modules had panels 1 square meter in size. This provided vital energy for life support, communications, and navigation on missions to the Moon and back.

Modern Solar Expansion

The 1970s oil crisis sparked major interest and investment in renewable energy, including solar. With oil prices high, many countries began researching solar technology more seriously as an alternative energy source.

In the United States, the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 and the Energy Tax Act of 1978 provided tax credits and helped jumpstart a domestic solar PV industry. Unpacking the Origins of Solar Energy Tracing Its Roots from …

Japan began a strong national effort on photovoltaics after the oil crisis, which helped bring down costs through mass production and technological improvements. Germany implemented a feed-in tariff in 1991, sparking major growth in solar PV installations.

As the cost of solar declined in the 1990s and 2000s, installations expanded around the world. Major growth occurred in China, the United States, Japan and Germany. By the end of 2016, there was over 300 gigawatts of cumulative installed PV capacity worldwide.

Key Contributors

Here are some of the other key contributors in the development of solar energy technology over time:

Charles Fritts – In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts installed the first rooftop solar panels made from selenium cells. Though inefficient, this marked the first use of solar photovoltaics to generate electricity.

Frank Shuman – American inventor Frank Shuman developed a low-pressure steam engine powered by solar energy in the early 1900s. His company built the world’s first solar power station in Egypt in 1912.

Albert Einstein – In 1905, Albert Einstein published papers explaining the photoelectric effect, which was critical to understanding how solar cells work and earned him the Nobel Prize in 1921. The first silicon solar cell was built based on his work.

Bell Labs – In 1954, researchers at Bell Labs built the first practical silicon solar cell with 4% efficiency. This paved the way for widespread solar photovoltaics. Bell Labs continued innovating and improving solar cell design and efficiency.

NASA – In the 1950s-60s, NASA’s space program drove advances in solar cell technology to power spacecraft and satellites. This dramatically improved solar efficiency and lowered costs.

Universities & Researchers – Pioneers at universities and research labs like the University of Delaware, MIT, Stanford, and Bell Labs spent decades researching materials science and manufacturing to increase solar efficiency and lower costs.

While no one person can claim the title of sole “Father of Solar,” these innovators collectively paved the way for modern solar energy.

Is There a True ‘Father of Solar’?

While several scientists and inventors made critical early contributions to solar technology, there is debate over whether any one individual can claim the title of the “Father of Solar.” Some of the key figures who have been considered for this designation include:

Frank Shuman, an American inventor who patented a solar engine design in 1912 and built one of the world’s first solar power plants. He promoted solar energy early on but his work did not lead to widespread adoption.

Peter Glaser, who conceptualized the idea of solar power satellites in the 1960s. While visionary, his space-based concepts did not directly contribute to mainstream solar applications.

Bell Labs researchers like Daryl Chapin who developed the silicon solar cell. This pioneering accomplishment enabled many later advances, though commercialization took decades.

In truth, no single scientist or inventor can claim sole credit for founding modern solar technology. Pioneers like Shuman, Chapin, Einstein, Fritts and others each made vital breakthroughs that built the foundation. As with many great innovations, solar energy progressed thanks to accumulated contributions over time, not just one brilliant mind.

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