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Photovoltaics: The Future

Pic: Solar Sailor Ferry, an Australian built completely solar powered ship.

In today’s climate of high oil prices, dwindling deposits of fossil fuels and widespread global warming and drought, alternative fuels are no longer an option but rather a necessity. While fuel sources such as nuclear power is still in its infancy with heated debates raging regarding its viability, other sources such as Solar Cells and Wind Power are efficient and feasible. Wind Power requires great expanses of area and forms a clumsy and unreliable form of energy production that is reliant completely on the natural elements.

Solar Power on the other hand is largely unaffected by natural elements, is far smaller (and as such can be applied in a residential setting) and offers more power per unit time. It can be conclusively stated that Solar Cells have a very bright future.

Solar Cells are already actively used in countries in Asia as the direct power source for heating water. When considered the number of homes using hot water and thus the energy consumption as a result of this it can be seen the great advantages of Solar Cells. In the given case, it has alleviated the national grid in the respective countries approximately 20-30%.

Likewise Solar Cells are also being used in remote regions of countries where it is impractical to extend a dedicated power line. While it must be stated that Solar Cells may never be able to produce the energy required to electrify one complete city, they can be used as both backup devices and supplementary devices. This has the benefit of not being extremely expensive, saving reasonably large amounts of power from the national grid and also providing energy during “blackouts”. The last factor is an important one is developing countries as they experience an untoward number of such incidences.

Solar Cells by their nature are reliant on the sun to provide energy in order to operate and this resource has relatively untapped. However an average, commercially available Solar Cell of approximately 10cmx10cm, even in bright midday sunlight is only capable of producing 0.16A. Obviously this is not a sufficient amount for any practical purposes, as such bigger and more advanced Solar Cells are generally used in any situation. More advanced Solar Cells have the benefit of being able to absorb light at different ranges of intensity and as such produce not only greater current in the same area, but also absorb more areas of light, therefore produce an even greater amount.

In rural areas of Australia and other countries in the world, which receive generous sun exposure, “Solar Cell Farms” have been set-up in order to harness the naturally abundant energy there. Large expanses of area which would otherwise be barren are filled with Solar Cells with the idea that they can use the energy for local towns, and if needed pump to cities as well. Solar Cells have the advantage of being able to store or save the energy, which it has collected during daytime in sunlight.

The major drawbacks to Solar Cells are their inevitable high cost. The very fact that small cells generate very small, almost arbitrarily small amounts of current is the main reason for this. In order to generate electricity on a usable scale, one must invest in Solar Cells with the aim of getting good returns, which over time it will provide. Most investors, whether they be private citizens, companies or national energy providers are reluctant to invest in this otherwise rewarding enterprise. Importantly in countries where there is more rainfall and less sunshine (for example Great Britain) Solar Cells provide no real benefit in any sense, as such implementing them in such countries would be a complete waste of money.

Solar Cells also provide disadvantages in that it may cause complications in the national grid if connected. For example if a persons house has their own power generation along with the grid connected power, excess power will inevitably leak into the grid, causing spiking, irregular voltages, currents and other such drawbacks. Care must be taken to ensure that preventative measures are in place before implementing such a system. A standalone system of course does not have any such complications.

Regardless of the above small drawbacks with the Solar Cells, as one can appreciate, there are no major issues in regards to their usage. Unlike Nuclear Power which has pundits at loggerheads over its practicality, viability and environmental damage or Coal/Oil Power which is a dying breed of Power Generation, Solar Cells do not pose any threat to any organisations, the public or the environment. It is a clean, well thought out and well implemented system.

Technological advancements will only bring about better Solar Cells. Improvements in semiconductors have already heralded improvements in Solar Cell and Panels. The first generation of Solar Cells were simple semiconductor devices with the main emphasis on P-N Junctions Diodes. Typically they were constructed from Silicon (Si) wafer and still find a massive saturation in the market accounting for almost 85% of all Solar Cells sold.

However, Second Generation systems reduced the use of semiconductors and included glasses and ceramics in them. While making production and subsequently commercial price far cheaper, were far less efficient than the previously implemented system.

Third Generation systems have, however, bridged the gap between practicality, usability, efficiency and commercial aspects. Comprising of Photoelectrochemical Cells or Dye Sensitised Solar Cells, Polymer Solar Cells and Nanocrystal Solar Cells, these are the latest generation of Solar Cells, which are still relatively new and untried. Their basis is on new technology breaking ground in Science. Photelectrochemical Cells rely less of the Diode but more on the electrolytic process, which happens in the substance, they are immersed in. Soon these third generation cells will become freely and completely available on the market to be used. The promise to have an efficiency of 17% far greater than the previous 5-10%. With this, one can see that Solar Cells in both their technology and applications have an incredibly bright future.

They are being needed in most countries now both as a necessity and a way to the future.

Some Applications of Solar Cells:

  • Rural/Outback areas where dedicated power lines are not viable to be connected. They can be specially used to power farms, to provide a large output of energy.
  • Traffic Lights
  • Public Telephone Booths
  • Street Lights
  • Street Name Boards
  • Hot Water Systems
  • Computational Devices
  • Calculators
  • Air Conditioners
  • Vehicles
  • Ships
  • Railway Crossing Operators
  • Refrigeration in remote areas
  • Cars / Lorries
  • Solar panels can be used on spacecraft, particularly when they are in the inner part of the solar system.

Considering this is my first science related post in quite a while I thought it would be nice to have something that wasn't necessary technical but rather technological. I could have gone into detail about p-n junctions, how it all works and various new technical improvements including Stage 3 Photovoltaics, but I restrained myself. When I feel like it doing again, which I should think is very soon, I will bring back the old old E = hf and other such delightful creations.

“Photovoltaics: The Future”