Capturing solar energy and transforming it into electricity to power your toaster seems like wizardry. But it’s science, not magic. To transform one kind of energy into another, solar panels employ a strange bit of physics known as the photovoltaic effect. Solar panels capture light and transform it into electricity in the following way.
The sun is a massive powerhouse, releasing 10 decillions (that’s a 1 followed by 34 zeroes) of joules of energy per year. That’s a lot of energy! This wash of energy covers the entire globe, and is one of the things that makes it such a nice place to live. It controls the weather, warms the atmosphere, and allows life to exist. Isn’t it good to be able to turn some of this energy into something we can use?
Photosynthesis is how plants do it: they use light to convert carbon from the atmosphere into sugars, which they then digest to develop. Solar panels, which are appearing on an increasing number of roofs, accomplish the same way, transforming light into power. They can do so due to the photovoltaic effect, which turns solar energy into electrical energy.
When light strikes an atom, it is occasionally absorbed by one of the electrons around the atom, increasing the electron’s energy. This increased energy is enough to knock the electron loose from the atom in some materials (such as some metals and silicon), allowing it to migrate inside the crystal structure of the substance. You may take advantage of this if you make two crystal layers.
One layer, known as an N-type material, has been polluted with a chemical (scientists call this doping), which means it has a lot of electrons to spare. The other layer, known as a P-type material, is polluted with another substance that causes it to seek to absorb more electrons. There is a voltage differential between the two layers because electrons can’t easily travel through the junction of these two materials (known as an NP junction). If each side of the panel is connected to a circuit, the voltage can be utilized to power an appliance or charge a battery.
Each solar cell produces just a modest amount of voltage, usually around 0.5V. The quantity of current generated is proportional to the cell’s size. This voltage can be raised by connecting numerous cells. As a result, if you cover your roof with solar cells that are linked together, you may generate enough electricity to power the majority of your home in Sydney.
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