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The History of Solar Panels

Photovoltaic power was first discovered by a French scientist, Antoine Becquerel, in 1839. Many scientists that followed experimented with solar power and tried to build a device that would capture the sun’s energy and redirect it but they were not able to find a way to make a working PV cell. The solar cell was first successfully made by the scientist, Charles Fritts, in 1882. Since they didn’t have the same types of materials that we have today the first working solar cell was made of thin sheets of Selenium, a mineral, that were then coated with gold.

Even though the use of solar panels for generating electricity and heat seems like a relatively new development it’s actually been widely used to generate power since the early 1900’s. Photos from that period show a series of parabola shaped “sun catchers” that would harness the power of the sun and focus it on water tanks. Once the water was heated it made steam which was used to power farm machinery. The solar heated water created enough steam to power 55 horsepower machinery which was cutting edge at the time.

Then, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, businesses found that they could use the sun’s energy to heat water which created steam to power the machines in the factories. At that time solar energy was considered the wave of the future and a lot of companies began developing better ways to use the sun’s energy until after WWI when fossil fuels became more attractive to companies and farm owners to run their machinery.

The first working silicon solar cell didn’t come along until 1941 when an employee at a Bell laboratory, Russell Ohl, patented his design for a silicon based PV cell. In 1954, Bell labs mass produced the first crystal silicon solar cell. The Bell PVcell converted 4% of the sun’s energy into electricity a rate that was considered the cutting edge in energy technology.

Scientists continued to reinvent and rework the design of the original silicon PVcell and were eventually able to produce a solar cell that was capable of putting out a 20% return electricity rate. In the 1980’s solar cell technology was being used almost exclusively for space travel.

The use of solar power in space is a natural given that spacecraft can’t burn fossil fuels in the vacuum of space and in space the rays of the sun are not reduced by the Earth’s atmosphere and clouds. In the late 1990’s as awareness grew in the science community about the effects of global warming and the need for renewable energy sources scientists continued to refine the silicon PV cell until by early 2000 they were able to make a solar cell with 24% electricity return.
In just 7 years scientists were again able to increase the electricity return of the silicon solar cell using space age materials. By 2007, modern silicon PVsolar cells were operating with a 28% electricity return. As scientists continue to make better solar cells it will become more common and more cost effective for homeowners to use solar cells and solar panels to power their homes.

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