The difference between a solar cell and a photocell

Written by dirk huds Google
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The difference between a solar cell and a photocell
Solar cells use the photovoltaic process. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Solar cells and photocells are often confused and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Both are electrical components that deal with light. However, they are distinct elements, each with their own function and uses. The key difference is that solar cells generate electrical current, while photocells do not, being used to allow or prohibit current flow.

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Solar cell

A solar cell harnesses energy from the sun and converts it into electricity. Also called a photovoltaic cell, a solar cell comprises two layers, one with a negative charge and one with a positive. Sunlight hitting the cell completes the circuit and forms an electrical field between the two layers. This electricity can then be diverted to an external electrical circuit to power electric devices. A solar cell is a type of conductor.


A photocell is a resistor and doesn’t generate current like the solar cell. It features two wires embedded in a circuit board. These are called the anode and the cathode and are usually configured to have a threshold frequency. When light hits the cell heating it above the threshold, the anode and cathode expand, touch and complete and electrical circuit, allowing the current to pass through and into the circuit board.


Solar cells are used to power electrical appliances. They are used in solar panels to generate electricity to power the electrical system within a home. They are also used in smaller appliances, such as calculators. Photocells serve to complete or break circuits, much like and "on/off" switch in a house. So they are used in streetlights, patio illumination and burglar alarms where a slight fluctuation in light -- and so resistance -- serves to complete or break a circuit.

Set up

Photocells tend to be smaller than solar cells, used for a single circuit. They are also more finely calibrated, able to detect a small change in light conditions. Solar cells are also calibrated, but are designed to maximise current generation from available sunlight. Adding more cells can generate more power.

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