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December 12, 2014

Looking at the Beauty of the Solar Cell: John Perlin Interview

In a discussion today about solar energy and the coming Year of Light, author John Perlin helped enlighten me about the importance of the solar cell (photovoltaic systems) as a source for renewable electrical energy. What is the single most significant consideration in designing a PV system, as opposed to a solar thermal system that is founded using multiple heliostats? The answer: PV functions without requiring moving parts.

Perlin, author of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy, elaborates here on the solar cell:

Year of Light and the Solar Cell

Most consider the solar cell as just another device for producing energy. But this is just not the case. Solar cells are something special, nothing less than a revolution in power generation.

As Science magazine observed almost forty years ago, “If there is a dream solar technology, it is photovoltaics – solar cells – at once the most sophisticated solar technology and simplest, most benign source of electricity yet conceived.”

Solar History

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Daryl Chapin

Daryl Chapin, one of the inventors of the silicon solar cell – the first solar cell capable of directly converting enough sunlight for practical purposes – realized from the beginning the significance, writing: “It is clearly wasteful to convert solar radiation into heat and reconvert it into electricity or mechanical motion. This is one reason why scientists eagerly welcome any information about a direct conversion of solar energy to electricity even though early results are competitive economically in special cases. Cost reduction and other improvements can come later. The important fact is that more than 10% of the sun’s total radiant energy can be delivered as electrical energy into a load without moving parts and without wasteful prior conversion to heat energy.”

The New York Times, like Chapin, celebrated the birth of the silicon solar cell in 1954, as “the beginning of a new era, leading to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

Bell Laboratories, where the semiconductor era began, predicted that its two semiconductor inventions – the transistor and the silicon solar cell – would be “closely linked in many important future developments that will profoundly influence the art of living.”

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