This is how the accidental origins of Solar Power were started. The physical chemistry behind solar power has been around for awhile. The first photovoltaic cell was created in 1883 by Charles Fritts by coating selenium with a layer of gold. With an efficiency of around 1%, it didn’t really take off.
Most of the solar panels installed today rely on wafers of silicon, and it was work on the development of the transistor, another silicon-dependent marvel of the modern world, that brought about the key breakthrough. As it turns out, it was an experimental glitch that lead to a discovery with truly world-changing consequences.
In 1940, a team at Bell Labs led by Russell Ohl were attempting to purify silicon when they created a rod of the material with unusual properties: when exposed to bright light, an electrical current flowed from one end to the other. It turned out that one end of the silicon rod was contaminated with a small amount of phosphorous, and the other end by boron. The first silicon solar cell was born, quite by accident.
The initial focus was on using this new found material in the development of the transistors that populate every electronic device and that have transformed the world. Solar power took a back seat, though Ohl did see the potential of silicon in solar power. He patented the modern junction semiconductor solar cell in 1946.
It was another team at Bell Labs that created the first commercially viable silicon solar cells in 1954. However, at a cost of around $250 per watt they weren’t about to take the world by storm. Fortunately the space age came along and solar power found a perfect springboard for its ongoing development.
A range of factors have spurred an explosion in production of solar cells. As traditional energy costs have risen, solar costs have fallen. It now costs less than $1 per watt to manufacture solar cells and in many countries (including Australia) it is cheaper for home owners to generate their own solar power than to buy grid power.
Dodgy Silicon Rods
Back in 1940 a dodgy rod of silicon set in path a train of events that transformed computing and communication. It is now starting to deliver a similar transformation of our energy supply too.