Though it may seems like an intimidating term, Photovoltaics is nothing more than the term used to describe the scientific process utilized by all solar panels and solar cells. From the calculator you had in grade school to the massive panels at Nellis Air Force Base, Photovoltaics convert the abundant energy source of the sun into something we can use to power everything from blenders to cars.
The how may be a little harder to understand than the what, but essentially the sun emits solar radiation. It's this same radiation that gives you a sunburn if you're at the beach too long, and in the same way that our skin reacts to this solar radiation, certain elements and compounds react (such as cadmium telluride, amorphous silicon and copper indium selenide). In 1839, French physicist Edmund Bequerel first noted that when certain compounds were exposed to light they would produce small amounts of electric current. Notable scientists such as Albert Einstein and Bell Laboratories furthered the theory and science behind the photoelectric process, resulting in the first photovoltaic module built in 1954 and began to be used by NASA and other industries throughout the 1960's and 1970's.
These types of compounds that exhibit the photovoltaic effect are packaged into solar cells and photovoltaic arrays, and then connected to batteries or directly to the energy grid to provide power. Initially, the amount of power provided by solar cells was so miniscule that it was thought to be more of a pipe dream or a tool for hobbyists, but in recent years, the usage of solar energy and the increased efficiency of photovoltaic cells has made solar power a real option for many families and governments. While solar energy only accounts for .4% of the world’s energy usage, it's been increasing steadily over the last decade at a rate of roughly 60% per year.
The science behind solar energy is almost as exciting as the potential for this green, renewable energy source. Solar will almost certainly never account for 100% of the worlds energy consumption, but if we can start to rely more heavily on solar, wind, hydro and other green energy sources, we have a much better chance creating a sustainable energy system that won't find itself in crisis when fossil fuels and coal eventually run out.
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