Solar Cell Structure

A solar cell is an electronic device which directly converts sunlight into electricity. Light shining on the solar cell produces both a current and a voltage to generate electric power. This process requires firstly, a material in which the absorption of light raises an electron to a higher energy state, and secondly, the movement of this higher energy electron from the solar cell into an external circuit. The electron then dissipates its energy in the external circuit and returns to the solar cell. A variety of materials and processes can potentially satisfy the requirements for photovoltaic energy conversion, but in practice nearly all photovoltaic energy conversion uses semiconductor materials in the form of a p-n junction.

solar cell

Cross section of a solar cell. Note: Emitter and Base are historical terms that don't have meaning in a modern solar cells. We still use them because there aren't any concise alternatives. Emitter and Base are very embedded in the literature and they are useful terms to show the function of the layers in a p-n junction. The light enters the emitter first. The emitter is usually thin to keep the depletion region near where the light is strongly absorbed and the base is usually made thick enough to absorb most of the light. 

The basic steps in the operation of a solar cell are:

  • the generation of light-generated carriers;
  • the collection of the light-generated carries to generate a current;
  • the generation of a large voltage across the solar cell; and
  • the dissipation of power in the load and in parasitic resistances.