How Solar Cells Work, Photovoltaic Cell Energy Generation
How Solar Cells Generate Energy
Solar cells today are mostly made of silicon, one of the most common elements on Earth. The crystalline silicon solar cell was one of the first types to be developed and it is still the most common type in use today. They do not pollute the atmosphere and they leave behind no harmful waste products. Photovoltaic cells work effectively even in cloudy weather and unlike solar heaters, are more efficient at low temperatures. They do their job silently and there are no moving parts to wear out. It is no wonder that one marvels on how such a device would function.
To understand how a solar cell works, it is necessary to go back to some basic atomic concepts. In the simplest model of the atom, electrons orbit a central nucleus, composed of protons and neutrons. each electron carries one negative charge and each proton one positive charge. Neutrons carry no charge. Every atom has the same number of electrons as there are protons, so, on the whole, it is electrically neutral. The electrons have discrete kinetic energy levels, which increase with the orbital radius. When atoms bond together to form a solid, the electron energy levels merge into bands. In electrical conductors, these bands are continuous but in insulators and semiconductors there is an "energy gap", in which no electron orbits can exist, between the inner valence band and outer conduction band [Book 1]. Valence electrons help to bind together the atoms in a solid by orbiting 2 adjacent nucleii, while conduction electrons, being less closely bound to the nucleii, are free to move in response to an applied voltage or electric field. The fewer conduction electrons there are, the higher the electrical resistivity of the material.
In semiconductors, the materials from which solar sells are made, the energy gap Eg is fairly small. Because of this, electrons in the valence band can easily be made to jump to the conduction band by the injection of energy, either in the form of heat or light [Book 4]. This explains why the high resistivity of semiconductors decreases as the temperature is raised or the material illuminated. The excitation of valence electrons to the conduction band is best accomplished when the semiconductor is in the crystalline state, i.e. when the atoms are arranged in a precise geometrical formation or "lattice".
At room temperature and low illumination, pure or so-called "intrinsic"...