How do solar panels work?

Written by nacie carson
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Solar panels, also called photovoltaics or solar cells, are a form of environmentally friendly power that utilises sunlight to produce usable energy. The first solar panel was invented in 1883 by Charles Frittis and yielded an energy efficiency of less than 1 per cent. Since Frittis' version, the design for solar panels has greatly improved, and modern photovoltaics can transfer up to 60 per cent of the energy they create. However, solar panels are fragile structures that decay from prolonged exposure to the elements and harmful UV rays, making their maintenance costs considerable. Solar panels have gained much attention over the past 20 years as a clean and sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-based energy sources.

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Solar panels work through the elemental reaction between positively charged and negatively charged compounds. The main ingredient in a solar panel is silicon. Silicon in its purest form is an electromagnetically neutral element that, due to its four valence electrons, will easily take on the charge of another element, which makes it an ideal base for the process of harnessing solar energy. Electric power is created when electrons move from a negative charge to a positive one, so a solar panel is actually made of two separate plates joined by conductive wiring. The top plate of the panel is made from silicon mixed with negatively charged phosphorus, and the bottom plate is made from silicon mixed with positively charged boron.

Energy Production

When the solar panel is placed in the sun, an elemental reaction occurs between the two plates resulting in the production of electricity. Natural sunlight is full of particles called photons, which interact with the valence electrons of the negatively charged phosphorus/silicon molecules on the top plate. The valence electrons become excited and bump the additional electron that makes phosphorus negative loose. The freed electron travels along the connective wiring to the electron deficient boron/silicon molecules of the bottom plate, creating usable energy through the transfer of the electron. This energy may be used immediately to create electric power or be stored for a short period of time in a chemical battery. Energy will be created as long as sunlight is shining on the negative plate, and the amount of energy created will be directly proportional to the size of the solar panel. This is why devices that rely on solar panels, such as homes, businesses or vehicles, will have several distinct panels of equal size to maximise potential energy output.

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