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Solar Panels Provide a Green Energy Solution Using High Tech Computer Manufacturing Processes
Solar cell technology has been around for over 60 years. Since the discovery of silicon-based semiconductors, solar modules, commonly referred to as photovoltaic panels, have been used to generate electricity from light. No longer a laboratory curiosity, solar cells are an industry unto themselves and are as common in power generation as traditional power generation methods such as steam-powered generators and nuclear power plants. Many methods of solar energy collection are in use and available today. We will examine the more common electrical devices that generate solar energy: photovoltaic cells and PV modules.
How does a PV module generate electricity from light?
Solar cells are made of materials that become electrically active when light hits their surface. This unit, a solar cell, operates without moving parts and never wears out! Connect several cells together and you have a solar array or photovoltaic module. The more cells, the more power can be generated from the modules.
The top layer of a solar cell or wafer consists of a layer of silicon that contains free electrons which are negatively charged particles. The boron-enhanced bottom layer contains vacancies, or holes, that allow electrons to pass through the vacancies. The manufacturing process creates an electron imbalance between the two layers in this semiconductor material. This imbalance is responsible for the operation of the solar cell which produces current and voltage.
The sun hits the solar cell
Photons from the sun strike the outside of the photovoltaic cell. This action excites free electrons in both silicon layers. Some of the electrons from the bottom layer move to the silicon layer on top of the cell. Electron current flows through the metal contacts on the front and back of the solar cell to generate electricity. Electrons flow in a closed loop or electrical circuit. Combining multiple solar cells depends on how they collectively affect the voltage and current. Think of each cell as a battery. Stringing the cells in series (negative to positive) will add voltage and keep the amperage the same as a single cell. Stringing the cells in parallel will keep the voltage the same for one cell but add the amperage of the cells.
With solar energy
Solar panels generate electricity that is transmitted to an inverter. An inverter converts direct current into alternating current that matches the electricity supplied by your power company. Appliances and power equipment run on AC current. In the United States, electricity is produced at 60 Hz, while 50 Hz is common in Europe.
Solar electric power feeds into the wiring of a home, business or power plant and into the electrical utility’s power grid. A standalone power system can also function as its own utility. These “off-grid” systems require batteries to store energy when the solar panels generate more power than the load needs, and discharge when the solar modules cannot capture enough energy from the sun to offset the electrical load of a home or business.
Converting Silicon Wafers into Photovoltaic Cells
The computer chip industry has made it possible to produce solar cells at low cost. Advances in manufacturing, processing, and quality have made the photovoltaic cell manufacturing process state-of-the-art and scalable. As the process matures for silicon wafer manufacturing, the techniques are time-consuming and critical to achieve the desired performance results. A silicon wafer starts as an ingot of silicon material and is then cut into the characteristic round wafers seen on solar modules.
The part of the solar cell process that requires a clean room involves chemical and heat treatments that convert the gray silicon wafers directly into blue cells. Chemical etching removes a thin layer of silicon. Below this layer, the crystal structure shows a pyramid-shaped surface that absorbs more light.
Silicon wafers are placed in an oven where phosphorus is spread over the surface of the wafer. This step deposits a molecular-sized deposit as the wafer surface is exposed to phosphorous gas at high temperatures. This step gives the surface a negative potential electrical charge. This layer and the boron-doped layer below the surface form a positive-negative, or P/N, junction that is the basis of the PV cell. A semiconductor chip is also made this way.
Color and printing
The cells are placed in a vacuum chamber where silicon nitride is deposited on the side of the wafer that will be exposed to sunlight. A coating containing silicon nitride is designed to reduce light reflection. This process gives the cell a dark blue color. The cell is ready to generate electricity but still requires a means to collect the electricity and forward it to the load. Metal strips are printed on both sides of the cell to allow electrical charge collection and landing areas for wires to be attached to the wafer. When this step is complete, the cell is ready to generate energy.
Attaching a cell to a solar panel
The cells are arranged to create the voltage and amperage profile of the completed solar panel. If you look at the different brands of solar panels on the market, you will notice that the arrangement of cells is based on these properties of both home solar panels and commercial types of solar panels. Consequently, the physical frame size of the PV module is set by the solar cell arrangement.
Cells are assembled into series strings that involve electrical bonding of wafers to form a module. Many wires are connected to form a rectangular matrix of cells. Each cell matrix is laminated to the glass using a strong adhesive system that ensures the finished panel will withstand normal environmental loads.
The outer frame of the solar module provides protection from weather and impact loads and also includes the electrical connection which can be a junction box or standard electrical cable connector. These are commonly used in other electrical appliances.
Location, location, location
Fitting a solar module array requires the opportunity to collect as much sunlight as possible during seasonal variations in the sun’s intensity.
Rooftop systems provide a ready platform as the surface is often inclined towards the sun and the surface is unusable for any other equipment.
Ground-mount systems are good options where roofs are unavailable or areas are very small. The modules are mounted on racks that are anchored to the ground and are accessible for service or to add additional solar modules.
Canopy systems work well in shed roof applications such as parking areas.
Utility-scale systems are typically large power generating units sized for utility grade use and are generally not limited in land area.
Tracking systems optimize output power by moving solar modules according to the path of the sun.
Solar modules are a combination of solar cells and technology that has reduced the cost of computer chips from just a decade ago. The inherent reliability of solar modules used for home solar panels is due to the lack of moving parts and the high reliability of parts and processes that make a solar module a reality. There are no limits to the type of solar electric system that can be designed and very few limitations on location as long as there is plenty of sunlight.
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