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Articles > How Do Solar Panels Work

8 Aug 2007

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For us that have or have been around products that are powered by the sun, our curiosity has surely been aroused as to how solar energy works. I mean, here you have an item such as a solar powered bird bath water fountain that runs by electricity, but you don't have to plug it into a wall receptacle.You just point the solar panel at the sun and it begins to operate via solar power. That's pretty cool.

I've read articles explaining the chemical and scientific reasons why and how the solar panel works and those articles do a great job describing the process. But if you've been out of school for a few years or a few decades some of those words in the articles may as well have been written in a foreign language. After researching several articles,and tossing those foreign words and phrases around in my head,  I've attempted to come up with a more simplified  explanation of how solar energy from the sun is transformed into solar electricity. I will try to answer the question, How do solar panels work ?                

There are two major players in this game of delivering solar power. The Sun, that big fiery ball in the sky, is the main player. The other major player is the solar cell. Now here's comes the part(at least for me) where it starts to get kind of blurry.The majority of solar cells are made of a material called silicon. This is the second most common element on Earth. Silicon is a component of sand. In order to be used in the solar cell, the silicon has to be isolated and heated to extremely high temperatures under controlled factory conditions. The silicon is then formed into very thin layers. A solar cell is made up of two of these thin layers,one positioned on top of the other spaced very close together.

Now ,the following information is based on the characteristics of atoms,of which everything is made of. Atoms are less than microscopic in size and certain materials have atoms that posses just the right characteristics for conducting electricity. In its purest form,due to its atomic makeup,(type of atoms) silicon has great potential for conducting electricity. That's all it has. Potential. It has no positive or electric charge. It is neutral.

Electricity must have a positive and a negative charge in order to flow. In order for silicon to conduct electricity , other elements must be added to it to create positive and negative charges. As stated earlier,  solar cells are made with two thin layers of silicon sandwiched together. One layer must be positive and the other layer must be negative. To make one layer of silicon positive, boron is added to it. To make the other layer in the solar cell negative, phosphorus is added to it. The characteristics of the atoms in these two other elements when combined with silicon atoms is the reason these changes take place.

Now we have the two layers of silicon for the solar cell to conduct solar electricity, a positive and a negative layer. We must  add small connecting wires between the layers from the negative  to the positive layer to give the electric current a route to travel once it is created.

Silicon is a shiny material, which reflects sunlight away from the solar cell. That's not what we want. We want the sunlight to be absorbed by the solar cell. Therefore a layer of anti-reflective material is placed over the solar cell to maximize the absorption of solar energy.(sunlight)

A single solar cell only puts out about a half a volt of electricity. That won't operate too many items requiring electricity.For this reason, a specific number  of solar cells, based on what will need power, are linked together to form a solar panel. For example, if you needed solar power for a 6 volt solar bird bath pump, you would link 12 solar cells together to form a solar panel.This solar panel is then encased in glass to seal everything and also add stability to the panel.

Now we've got our solar panel assembled. All we need now is the other major player in this puzzle, the sun. A lot of different types of energy is emitted by the sun , but the one form of solar  energy that the solar panel needs is called a photon. Photons are basically little droplets of light that trigger an atomic  level reaction when striking the  silicon layers of the solar panel. In other words, the photons from the sun stimulate movement of the electrons in the silicon layers and this in turn produces electric current to power whatever the solar panels are connected to.

Solar panels are used to run  solar powered fountains, solar birdbaths, solar lights, your outdoor garden fountains and a host of other products. I hope this article has shed some light on the mystery of solar energy. As I stated previously, this is a very simplified explanation of the process. If you are interested in the same facts with all the bells and whistles containing all the physics jargon and scientific terms, click here.

Serenity Health

Reginald Kilgore