Photovoltaic (effect)

The "photovoltaic effect" is the basic physical process through which a solar cell converts sunlight into electricity. In 1839, nineteen-year-old Edmund Becquerel, a French experimental physicist, discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolytic cell made up of two metal electrodes. Becquerel found that certain materials would produce small amounts of electric current when exposed to light.

Sunlight is composed of photons, or "packets" of energy. These photons contain various amounts of energy corresponding to the different wavelengths of light. When photons strike a solar cell, they may be reflected or absorbed, or they may pass right through. When a photon is absorbed, the energy of the photon is transferred to an electron in an atom of the cell (which is actually a semiconductor). With its newfound energy, the electron is able to escape from its normal position associated with that atom to become part of the current in an electrical circuit. By leaving this position, the electron causes a hole to form. Special electrical properties of the solar cell Ña built-in electric field (thanks to a P-N junction) Ñprovide the voltage needed to drive the current through an external load (such as a light bulb).|


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