In many respects, the history of discovering photovoltaic installations is quite typical. Chance played a role in it, and before it reached the everyday user, it was first used by the army.
Moreover, as in the case of the discovery of electricity, how modern photovoltaic cells and solar panels work stands for many scientists and more than 100 years of technology development.
The first photovoltaic panels were only able to power a radio. Today, their power allows energy production for the entire single-family house. Modern silicon solar cells from large photovoltaic farms power several tens of thousands of buildings.
Later in the article, you will learn what role Albert Einstein, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, William Grylls Adams, Richard Evans Day, Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, Hans Ziegler, a particular chemist, and the American army.
History of Photovoltaics – Most Important Dates and Discoveries
To summarize the most important dates in the history of the development of photovoltaics and solar cells:
1839 – A. E. Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect
1871 – William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day use sunlight to create an electrical impulse and construct the first photovoltaic cell
1921 – Albert Einstein is awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the photon flux and the photovoltaic phenomenon
1941 – The first silicon solar cells are built
1954 – Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller create the first silicon solar cells that can generate electricity measurably – this is how the first PV panels are created at Bell Laboratories
1958 – NASA begins its adventure with silicon solar cells and uses them to power satellites orbiting around the Earth
1970s – it is possible to reduce the costs of photovoltaic installations by 80%; PV panels supply energy to lighthouses, watches, and calculators. In the 1990s – the popularization of photovoltaic panels on buildings.
Alexandre Edmond Becquerel and the discovery of the photovoltaic effect
The history of solar cells and the photovoltaic panels we know today began with the so-called photovoltaic effect. It all started in France in 1839.
Before global interest in ecological alternatives to energy production, physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered that certain materials can produce electricity when exposed to light. This happened by accident during an experiment with electrolyte and metal electrodes.
His discovery proved that a solid material, without heat or motion, could transform light into electricity. This is how the foundation for the first solar cells was created.
The discovery of the photovoltaic effect is related to one more interesting fact about the history of photovoltaics – namely, Becquerel was only 19 years old at that time! Such a young man noticed they could create small amounts of electric current with sufficient sunlight.
Creation of an electric impulse and the first solar cells
Over 30 years, he has had to pass before subsequent scientists successfully explored the effects of sunlight as a potential source of electricity.
The year is 1871 when the British physicist William Grylls Adams begins to analyze the nature of light and the effects of polarization. He does not “play” with metal electrodes randomly like his predecessor but focuses on deliberate exposure to light of materials made of particular raw materials.
He is helped in this by his talented student, Richard Evans Day. In 1876, the two discovered that an electrical impulse could be created by illuminating selenium and platinum sufficiently long and inventing the first solar cells.
Although selenium solar cells proved too weak to produce enough energy to power electrical devices, this solid material became the foundation for silicon solar cells and all subsequent technologies. Some historians claim that Adams and Day’s discovery was also a kind of forerunner of quantum mechanics.
Einstein received the Nobel Prize for describing the photovoltaic phenomenon and not E=mc2!
In 1904, Albert Einstein entered the nature of light and the history of photovoltaics. In his work describing the photovoltaic effect, he showed that light is a stream of photons, each carrying a portion of energy, i.e., containing a quantum of energy.
The photon transfers its energy to the electrons found in it on the surface of the metal plate. When sunlight reaches the surface of the panels, electrons are excited—their transition to the following energy level results in movement between the electrodes. As a result, the potential difference leads to the production of electric current, i.e., the photovoltaic phenomenon occurs.
It is thanks to his work on the photon stream and the theoretical description that it contains a quantum of energy, i.e., a thorough analysis of the photovoltaic phenomenon, Einstein owes the Nobel Prize, and not – as is commonly believed – to his famous achievements in the field of quantum physics.
Who invented photovoltaic panels, and when?
The history of dynamic development, especially of photovoltaic panels, occurred only after World War II. Although the first silicon cell was created in 1941, it was only 13 years later that the first photovoltaic panel was made. It has been documented that three scientists from Bell Laboratories are responsible for this success: Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and a confident Calvin Fuller.
What was the efficiency of processing sunlight by the first PV panel? Only 6%! Unfortunately, due to high production costs, photovoltaics have not yet been considered a suitable power source.
Development of photovoltaics in the mid-20th century – panels fly into space
However, using expensive solar cells did not discourage the American army and NASA, which were looking for a technology capable of replacing conventional batteries in space.
Special merits here belong to Hans Ziegler – a well-known pioneer of solar cells as an ideal power source for satellites orbiting around the Earth. He argued that conventional batteries would run out quickly, unlike solar energy.
Therefore, in 1958, a dual power system was used in the Vanguard satellite – chemical batteries and photovoltaic panels were used. After only a week, the storms and the chemicals failed, and the panels did not.
It turned out that the advanced technology crucial to the success of space missions is photovoltaics, and chemical batteries must be abandoned. Work on silicon solar cells, therefore, continued at NASA. The result was, among others, the first astronomical observatory equipped with solar panels.