Solar energy has more potential applications than any kind of renewable energy. As air and water pollution continue to be a problem from coal burning, gas, and nuclear power plants, the use of photovoltaic panels could have the biggest impact on abating pollution problems globally. Yet most of us don’t know how PV panels are manufactured.
Making conventional photovoltaic, or PV panels, has become a straightforward process, and the costs of production continue to decline. The basis for solar panels is silicone, similar to the material that circuit boards are made of. The crystalline silicone solar panels that are often seen on rooftops, roadsides, and in clustered arrays start as flat discs cut from a larger sheet. The discs are then polished and substances called dopants are added, which serve to alter electrical charges in the panel. Metal conductors are soldered to each disc and the panel is formed into a grid-like structure by aligning the conductor wires. A photovoltaic cell is formed and the assembly is covered by a layer of glass that supports the structure. Thermally conductive cement, which attaches the solar cell to a substrate in the back, is used to prevent overheating.
Newer types of panels use more advanced manufacturing processes. One breakthrough in PV panel manufacturing is amorphous silicone solar panels, which are much thinner than the standard variety. Their thickness can be measured in micrometers. Vapor deposition of silicone creates a multi-layer solar cell in a continuous manufacturing process. Individual layers absorb specific parts of the light spectrum that comes from the sun. For some amorphous solar panels, one row of solar cells can be in the shade and the rest of the panel will still collect sunlight and generate electricity. Their composition is much less delicate than that of crystalline silicone, so amorphous panels are less likely to break when being handled.
The viability of solar energy has generated competition in building more efficient, less expensive PV panels. Different designs have been developed, even for panels that do not use silicone. Conductive plastics have been developed into lenses and mirrors that rely on the laws of physics to focus sunlight onto small photovoltaic components. Solar sensitive dyes and inks have also be formulated that can act as photovoltaic elements, and even more cost effective are printing press systems that can churn out photovoltaic materials very quickly.
While solar power is limited only by the availability of sunlight, PV panels are becoming thinner and cheaper. It is possible for anyone to install them and advanced designs can even take the place of shingles and tiles. Solar materials can be used to decorate the facades of buildings, and allow for self-sufficient power generation for homes and businesses. With the flexibility and low cost of PV systems, ease of production, and government incentives becoming more commonplace for using solar energy, there is almost no excuse not to take advantage of the sun’s mighty power.