A solar cell is the fundamental component of any solar power system, with a single solar panel comprised of several rows of solar cells. The solar cell is the device that converts energy from the rays of the sun into electricity. Building mini solar cells is a simple and inexpensive way to explore solar power, whether as a science project or as the groundwork for a homemade solar panel.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- Electric stove
- Sandpaper, steel wool or wire brush
- 1 sheet of copper flashing, 1-by-2-feet
- Tin snips
- Soap or household cleanser
- Wide-mouthed glass jar
- Table salt
- Tap water
Clean one of the stove burners well, using sandpaper, steel wool or the wire brush to scrub off any corrosion, oil, grease or other substances.
Cut the copper flashing with the tin snips into two rectangular pieces that can each fit completely over the stove burner.
Wash the copper flashing pieces well with soap or household cleanser and rinse completely. Brush with sandpaper, steel wool or the wire brush to remove all traces of corrosion. Dry the pieces well. Wash your hands with soap and water and rinse well to remove all grease and oils.
Lay one of the copper rectangles, or plates, on top of the stove burner and turn the burner on to the highest setting. Set the other copper plate aside. As the plate on the burner heats up, two types of copper oxide will start to form: a reddish-orange layer of cuprous oxide, covered by a black layer of cupric oxide. After about 30 minutes from the time that the black layer has completely covered the cuprous oxide layer, turn off the heat.
Let the copper plate cool completely. The copper will shrink as it slowly cools and much of the black cupric oxide waste will separate and flake off. After about 20 minutes, when the plate has cooled completely, remove it from the burner.
Carefully clean the plate with the sandpaper, steel wool or wire brush, rubbing lightly and running under tap water to remove the cupric oxide while leaving behind as much of the cuprous oxide as possible.
Place the copper plate in the glass jar, bending it slightly toward one wall of the jar, with the cuprous oxide-coated side facing outward. Take the clean copper plate and set it in the jar, bending it toward the opposite side. With both plates in place, adjust them so they are not touching.
Secure the two copper plates to their respective sides of the jar with the alligator clip leads of the microammeter, connecting the negative terminal to the plate containing cuprous oxide and the positive terminal to the clean plate.
Dissolve the table salt completely in a heat-safe container of hot tap water and carefully pour the saltwater mixture into the glass jar, being sure not to get the alligator clips wet. Leave about an inch of space above the water line so you can adjust the copper pieces without wetting the clips.
Tips and warnings
- Test the mini solar cell by taking it outside into the full sun and seeing if the microammeter registers microamperage. With full sun, the microammeter should read 50 microamperes or higher.
- Always be careful of fire and burns when working around a hot stove burner.
- Let the copper plate cool on the burner slowly, because if the cupric oxide cools too quickly it could stick to the plate instead of peeling off.
- When rinsing the cupric oxide off the plate, resist the urge to get all of it off by scrubbing too hard, or you risk damaging the delicate reddish cuprous oxide layer.
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