The process of converting photons from sunlight into electricity was pioneered in 1954 by Bell Laboratories. Over the years the technology has matured, with photovoltaic solar power now meeting a growing portion of the nation’s electricity needs. The devices can be classified into three types, depending on the materials from which they are made:
- Silicon. Most solar power installations use this element. The efficiency of silicon-based cells is matched by their cost-effectiveness, and they are massively deployed on rooftops or freestanding energy racks.
- Thin-film. Also in frequent use are thin sheets of semiconductor material, such as gallium diselenide. In layers only millionths of meters thick, thin-film technology is highly portable - for instance, it can provide power from a soldier’s backpack. Manufacturing these panels requires less energy than other methods and is easily scalable.
- III-V. This designation refers to the elements these panels consist of, Group III (indium or gallium) and Group V (arsenic and antimony). Offsetting their steep manufacturing costs is greater efficiency - the percentage of solar energy that is turned into usable electricity. They are most suitable for unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites, which need maximum energy in relation to weight.
Scientists and engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are working on solar cells powered by organic and hybrid organic-inorganic materials. They are also striving to make the technology more durable and to integrate more easily with other energy sources.