Most of the world’s energy can go back to our sun. Every day we are heated by its electromagnetic rays, and plants use the sun’s energy to make sugars and ultimately proteins and other good things to eat. Fossil fuels were also once made from these plant and other organisms that relied on the sun’s energy millions of years ago. Today, humans can convert the sun’s energy directly into electricity, through solar thermal and solar photovoltaic systems.

SOLAR THERMAL OR PHOTOVOLTAIC?

Solar panels, also called solar thermal, convert sunlight to heat and then heat to electricity. Photovoltaic cells, or solar cells, convert sunlight directly into electric current by way of carefully-engineered semiconductor materials.

Though solar photovoltaics are more efficient converters of sunlight, they are also more expensive.

As of May 2011, the world’s largest solar power plant is a concentrating solar thermal power plant in the Mohave desert in California. Solar Energy Generating Systems has a capacity of 310 megawatts and uses parabola-shaped reflective troughs to concentrate electromagnetic radiation.

The world’s largest solar photovoltaic plant is probably the Sarnia Solar Project in Ontario, Canada. It has a capacity of roughly 80 megawatts.

HOW SOLAR THERMAL WORKS

Sunlight heats a design element (water, air, chemical fluids), and that thermal energy is transmitted for other applications, such as heating water, heating space, or generating electricity. In solar thermal power plants, sunlight heats a specialized fluid, which in turn heats water into steam, which can run turbines and produce electricity.

Solar thermal power plants use concentrators that bounce the sunlight off elliptical mirrors to a central tube, in which the specialized fluid lies.

HOW PHOTOVOLTAICS WORK

Photovoltaic cells are made of specialized diodes. Electrons (natural components of atoms) in the photovoltaic cells absorb light, which excites them to a state where they can be conducted as electrical current. This difference in energy, between the valence band (the state of a normal electron staying around its home atom) to the conduction band (electron free to move between atoms) is called the band gap.

Solar photovoltaic farm in Indonesia. Photo by Chandra Marsono.

Well-engineered photovoltaics have a band gap that coincides with the energies of as broad a spectrum of light as possible, to convert the maximum amount of the sunlight into electricity.

As sunlight energy pops electrons into the conduction band and away from their home atoms, an electric field is produced. The negatively-charged electrons separate from the positively-charged “holes” they leave behind, so that when electrons are freed into the conduction band, they move as electric current in the electric field, electricity.

PHOTOVOLTAICS ARE MADE OF SPECIALIZED MATERIALS

An ever-expanding variety of semiconductor materials can be used to make solar cells; universities and companies worldwide are researching these options, from special bio-plastics to semiconductor nanocrystals. Nonetheless, the photovoltaic cells available today require precise manufacturing conditions and are therefore far more expensive to produce than solar panels.

Silicon has to be processed under clean room conditions — carefully regulated atmospheres — to remove impurities and prevent introducing contaminants, both of which can change the band gap. Thin film-based photovoltaics require special production methods, like chemical vapor deposition. Semiconductor processing also uses strong acids and often dangerous chemicals for etching.

Today, commercially-sold cells are made from purified silicon or other crystalline semiconductors like cadmium telluride or copper indium gallium selenide.

WHERE DO WE GET THE STARTING MATERIALS?

Silicon is plentiful in the Earth’s crust. Cadmium is a readily available but highly toxic heavy metal, as is arsenic, another chemical used in some cells. As tellurium demand is only recently rising in response to solar demand, it’s unknown what the global supply is for this unusual element but it may be quite abundant. Photovoltaics are a lively area of research, and the future production and environmental costs of starter materials, production, and pollution are difficult to predict.

California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan produced the most photovoltaics in 2009. However, that year, 58 percent of photovoltaics were imports, primarily from Asian countries like China, Japan, and the Philippines.

LED TECHNOLOGY: MORE THAN HEADLAMPS

Photovoltaic cells work in the opposite direction of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. LEDs are used interchangeably with other lighting, like light bulbs. However, LED’s work in a completely different manner, far closer to the way photovoltaics work.

Click here see a bar chart comparing how much energy is used by various light sources.

LEDs absorb energy in the form of electricity, exciting electrons into the conduction band. When the electrons in the semiconductor material drop back into the valence band from the conduction band, they emit energy in the form of photons, or electromagnetic radiation.

It’s a highly efficient process because energy isn’t wasted on producing heat, which happens with standard tungsten filament bulbs. LEDs also last a much longer time as they do not have filaments to burn out, and because they are very small and several units are used to replace one large traditional lamp, they do not all burn out at once. That makes LEDs a good choice for stoplights or other safety critical applications.