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photovoltaic cell (PV Cell)

A photovoltaic cell (PV cell) is a specialized semiconductor diode that converts visible light into direct current (DC). Some PV cells can also convert infrared (IR) or ultraviolet (UV) radiation into DC electricity. Photovoltaic cells are an integral part of solar-electric energy systems, which are becoming increasingly important as alternative sources of utility power.

The first PV cells were made of silicon combined, or doped, with other elements to affect the behavior of electrons or holes (electron absences within atoms). Other materials, such as copper indium diselenide (CIS), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and gallium arsenide (GaAs), have been developed for use in PV cells. There are two basic types of semiconductor material, called positive (or P type) and negative (or N type). In a PV cell, flat pieces of these materials are placed together, and the physical boundary between them is called the P-N junction. The device is constructed in such a way that the junction can be exposed to visible light, IR, or UV. When such radiation strikes the P-N junction, a voltage difference is produced between the P type and N type materials. Electrodes connected to the semiconductor layers allow current to be drawn from the device.

Large sets of PV cells can be connected together to form solar modules, arrays, or panels. The use of PV cells and batteries for the generation of usable electrical energy is known as photovoltaics. One of the major advantages of photovoltaics is the fact that it is non-polluting, requiring only real estate (and a reasonably sunny climate) in order to function. Another advantage is the fact that solar energy is unlimited. Once a photovoltaic system has been installed, it can provide energy at essentially no cost for years, and with minimal maintenance.

This was last updated in September 2005

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