How did solar panels come into being? Read everything and more about the history of solar energy
The past decade saw a rapid rise in the proliferation and dissemination of solar energy. Solar energy now occupies a dominant position in the global energy mix. It is the fastest-growing electricity source in the USA and its contribution to USA’s energy mix is 3.3 percent. Highly efficient solar panels and sophisticated solar systems are the results of immense technological advancements which happened over a couple of centuries.
In this article, let us explore the fascinating history of solar energy, when and how the first solar cell was invented, and other important milestones in the history of solar energy.
Use of Solar Energy in The Classical Age
- Sun, a mysterious mass of blazing gasses, has been the chief source of light, heat, and energy for mankind. Humans have benefited from solar energy for as long as the 7th century. Back in that day, the sun’s rays were concentrated at a single point using the magnifying glass, for starting a fire.
The primitive man understood the importance of harnessing the thermal potential of the sun’s rays, hence he invented the sunroom. These rooms were created in a south-facing dimension which enabled direct exposure to sunlight. The famous Roman bathhouses are an example of sunrooms that were built for bathing and relaxing in a warm environment.
- In the 18th and 19th centuries, the sun’s power was being used to power a steamboat. It was also being used for powering ovens on ships during long journeys taken by the sea.
When and How Was The First Solar Cell Invented?
- While early man harnessed the power of solar energy in its most primitive form, it was the discovery of the photovoltaic effect by the scientific community which led to the invention of solar cells.
French physicist Edmond Becquerel is credited for discovering the photovoltaic effect in 1839. While experimenting with a cell made of metal electrodes that were placed in a conducting solution, Becquerel observed the effect of light on the electricity generation of the solution. He concluded that cells produced more light when they were exposed to light.
- In 1873, Willoughby Smith, an English Electrical Engineer, discovered the photoconductive properties of Selenium. Three years down the road, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day established the relationship between the photoconductive properties of Selenium and the photovoltaic effect. When Selenium was exposed to light, it generated electricity.
In 1883, the first working solar cell was created by Charles Fritz, who was an American scientist. The first cell was created with Selenium. This prototype cell had a conversion efficiency of 2-5%. Despite its low efficiency and high cost, the invention of the first solar cell was a breakthrough in the history of solar panels.
Birth of The Modern Solar Cell
- The first solar cell was made from Selenium. However, the commercial production of solar cells started in 1956 and they were made from silicon. In 1954 three American researchers David Chapin, Gerald Pearson, and Calvin Fuller created the first modern solar cell that was able to produce electricity using sunlight. The conversion efficiency of the first modern cell was approximately 11% and it was used for operating small electrical devices. The first modern solar cell was created at Bell Labs in New Jersey.
In its nascent stages, solar technology was quite expensive. The cost of electricity generation was estimated at $300/watt. The first commercial use of solar technology manifested in the form of solar cells which were used for running toys and radios. By the 1960s, solar equipment was also used for fuelling the outer-space satellites.
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