How do Solar Panels Work?

Solar Panel [Photo by Andreas Demmelbauer] (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Science Behind Solar Panels

The basic principles of how solar cells work is understood, but in practice the details make all the difference. By focusing on solar research at the earliest and most elementary level of the technology, some scientists are aiming to eventually develop a better and more efficient solar cell than anything that’s available today. This entails working on a molecular level, watching electrons split and trying to figure out what brings them back together and how to keep them apart longer in order to generate more energy.

Solar cell manufacturers today follow a recipe which produces a working cell, yet the science of what’s happening at the molecular level is still not fully understood. According to some researchers, the current model of using silicon as a base material in most solar products is highly inefficient, with the average commercial solar cell achieving just 15 to 20% efficiency.

Coatings For Solar Panels

Another approach to increasing the efficiency of solar panels is through the use of hydrophobic and hydrophilic coatings. The Nanofilm company is performing an ongoing research project on the benefits of these coatings for solar panels in partnership with the open solar outdoors Test Field and eIQ Energy. The open solar outdoors Test Field is a grid-connected solar panel testing system that continuously measures the energy output of 95 different types of solar panels and correlates their performance to precise meteorological data.

Phase one testing for Nanofilm is measuring the coatings’ ability to help panels shed sun-blocking snow that interferes with operation in cold climates. Further testing will determine the coatings’ ability to shed dirt that reduces glass transmission and panel efficiency. Maintaining the efficiency of solar panels at an optimum level has proven to be a challenge under real operating conditions due to environmental factors.

Plastic Solar Cells

At the University of California in Los Angeles, Professor Yang and his team of student researchers are developing plastic solar cells which they hope will one day be used in a variety of practical applications. Several dozen researchers in total are conducting experiments in the in the filed of organic solar cells at UCLA. Yang and his colleagues say that by developing solar cells from organic photovoltaic technology, which uses plastic in place of metal and silicon, costs of production can be greatly reduced.

This technology is already being used by Solarmer, a solar energy company that houses a number of Yang’s research group. The company was founded in 2006 to commercialize the use of organic photovoltaics, with a goal of reducing the costs to bring them inline with conventional fuel costs. The company is currently in a pilot-production stage, and expects to begin issuing products next year.