Everything you need to know about how solar panels work

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar panels are like magic wands on rooftops, roadside signs, and even spacecraft, turning sunlight into power. But have you ever wondered how they actually work?

Let’s break it down in a way that’s easy to understand and then bring it to life with an animated infographic.

Imagine sunlight is made of tiny particles called photons. When these photons hit a solar panel, they have the power to knock electrons (tiny particles inside atoms that carry electricity) loose from their atoms.

This action creates a flow of electricity.

Photovoltaic (PV) Cells

A solar panel is not just one big piece of equipment but is made up of many smaller units called photovoltaic cells. “Photovoltaic” sounds complicated, but it really just means these cells can turn sunlight into electricity. When you link many of these cells together, you get a solar panel.

Each photovoltaic cell is like a sandwich made of two layers of a special kind of material that conducts electricity a bit, but not too well—these are called semi-conducting materials. The most common material used is silicon, which you might know is also used in computer chips.

The Electric Field

For these cells to work, they need to create an electric field, which is a bit like a magnetic field but for electricity.

This field is created by making one layer of the silicon sandwich positively charged and the other layer negatively charged. Manufacturers do this by adding different materials to each layer.

For example, they add phosphorous to the top layer, giving it extra electrons that carry a negative charge. Then, they add boron to the bottom layer, which takes away some electrons, giving it a positive charge.

When these two layers are put together, an electric field is created right at the junction between them.

Creating Electricity

Now, when a photon from sunlight knocks an electron free, this electric field will push that electron out of the silicon sandwich.

But to turn this movement into electricity we can use, metal plates on the sides of the cell collect these electrons and send them through wires.

This way, the electrons can flow and power our homes, gadgets, or anything that uses electricity.

Check out the video below to see the whole process in action:

How do solar panels work? - Richard Komp

An interesting fact is that in 2021, about 4% of homes in the U.S. were powered by solar energy.

And researchers are always finding ways to make solar panels better.

They’ve even created ultra-thin, flexible solar cells that are lighter than a piece of paper and can sit on a soap bubble without popping it!

These advancements mean that in the future, solar panels could be everywhere – from buildings to planes, and even in our clothes, powering our world in new and exciting ways.

Besides the solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity, there are other solar technologies like solar thermal and concentrated solar power. These don’t create electricity in the same way but use sunlight to heat water or air, showing just how versatile and powerful the sun’s rays can be.

Animated Infographic

Now, let’s check out an animated infographic to visually explain how solar panels harness the power of sunlight to generate electricity.

How Solar Panels Work animated infographic, with headlines that include 'anatomy of a solar cell', 'why silicon?', the P-N junction, ' enter sunlight', and 'what next'

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