Solar Cells Basic Construction, Working, and Types

A photodiode optimized for efficiently delivering power to a load is the solar cell. It operates in photovoltaic mode (PV) because it is forward biased by the voltage developed across the load resistance.

Monocrystalline solar cells are manufactured in a process similar to semiconductor processing. This involves growing a single crystal boule from molten high purity silicon (P-type), though, not as high purity as for semiconductors. The boule is diamond sawed or wire sawed into wafers. The ends of the boule must be discarded or recycled, and silicon is lost in the saw kerf. Since modern cells are nearly square, silicon is lost in squaring the boule. Cells may be etched to texture (roughen) the surface to help trap light within the cell. Considerable silicon is lost in producing the 10 or 15 cm square wafers. These days (2007) it is common for solar cell manufacturer to purchase the wafers at this stage from a supplier to the semiconductor industry.

P-type Wafers are loaded back-to-back into fused silica boats exposing only the outer surface to the N-type dopant in the diffusion furnace. The diffusion process forms a thin n-type layer on the top of the cell. The diffusion also shorts the edges of the cell front to back. The periphery must be removed by plasma etching to unshort the cell. Silver and or aluminum paste is screened on the back of the cell, and a silver grid on the front. These are sintered in a furnace for good electrical contact. (Figure below)

The cells are wired in series with metal ribbons. For charging 12 V batteries, 36 cells at approximately 0.5 V are vacuum laminated between glass, and a polymer metal back. The glass may have a textured surface to help trap light.

Silicon Solar cell

The ultimate commercial high efficiency (21.5%) single crystal silicon solar cells have all contacts on the back of the cell. The active area of the cell is increased by moving the top (-) contact conductors to the back of the cell. The top (-) contacts are normally made to the N-type silicon on top of the cell. In Figure below the (-) contacts are made to N+ diffusions on the bottom interleaved with (+) contacts. The top surface is textured to aid in trapping light within the cell.

High efficiency solar cell with all contacts on the back. Adapted from Figure 1

Multicyrstalline silicon cells start out as molten silicon cast into a rectangular mold. As the silicon cools, it crystallizes into a few large (mm to cm sized) randomly oriented crystals instead of a single one. The remainder of the process is the same as for single crystal cells. The finished cells show lines dividing the individual crystals, as if the cells were cracked. The high efficiency is not quite as high as single crystal cells due to losses at crystal grain boundaries. The cell surface cannot be roughened by etching due to the random orientation of the crystals. However, an antireflectrive coating improves efficiency. These cells are competitive for all but space applications.

Three layer cell: The highest efficiency solar cell is a stack of three cells tuned to absorb different portions of the solar spectrum. Though three cells can be stacked atop one another, a monolithic single crystal structure of 20 semiconductor layers is more compact. At 32 % efficiency, it is now (2007) favored over silicon for space application. The high cost prevents it from finding many earth bound applications other than concentrators based on lenses or mirrors.

Intensive research has recently produced a version enhanced for terrestrial concentrators at 400 – 1000 suns and 40.7% efficiency. This requires either a big inexpensive Fresnel lens or reflector and a small area of the expensive semiconductor. This combination is thought to be competitive with inexpensive silicon cells for solar power plants.

Metal organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) deposits the layers atop a P-type germanium substrate. The top layers of N and P-type gallium indium phosphide (GaInP) having a band gap of 1.85 eV, absorbs ultraviolet and visible light. These wavelengths have enough energy to exceed the band gap. Longer wavelengths (lower energy) do not have enough energy to create electron-hole pairs, and pass on through to the next layer. A gallium arsenide layers having a band gap of 1.42 eV, absorbs near infrared light. Finally the germanium layer and substrate absorb far infrared. The series of three cells produce a voltage which is the sum of the voltages of the three cells. The voltage developed by each material is 0.4 V less than the band gap energy listed in Table below. For example, for GaInP: 1.8 eV/e – 0.4 V = 1.4 V. For all three the voltage is 1.4 V + 1.0 V + 0.3 V = 2.7 V.

High efficiency triple layer solar cell.

LayerBand gapLight absorbed
Gallium indium phosphide1.8 eVUV, visible
Gallium arsenide1.4 eVnear infrared
Germanium0.7 eVfar infrared

Crystalline solar cell arrays have a long usable life. Many arrays are guaranteed for 25 years, and believed to be good for 40 years. They do not suffer initial degradation compared with amorphous silicon.

Both single and multicrystalline solar cells are based on silicon wafers. The silicon is both the substrate and the active device layers. Much silicon is consumed. This kind of cell has been around for decades, and takes approximately 86% of the solar electric market. For further information about crystalline solar cells see Honsberg.

Amorphous silicon thin film solar cells use tiny amounts of the active raw material, silicon. Approximately half the cost of conventional crystalline solar cells is the solar cell grade silicon. The thin film deposition process reduces this cost. The downside is that efficiency is about half that of conventional crystalline cells. Moreover, efficiency degrades by 15-35% upon exposure to sunlight. A 7% efficient cell soon ages to 5% efficiency. Thin film amorphous silicon cells work better than crystalline cells in dim light. They are put to good use in solar powered calculators.

Non-silicon based solar cells make up about 7% of the market. These are thin-film polycrystalline products. Various compound semiconductors are the subject of research and development. Some non-silicon products are in production. Generally, the efficiency is better than amorphous silicon, but not nearly as good as crystalline silicon.

Cadmium telluride as a polycrystalline thin film on metal or glass can have a higher efficiency than amorphous silicon thin films. If deposited on metal, that layer is the negative contact to the cadmium telluride thin film. The transparent P-type cadmium sulfide atop the cadmium telluride serves as a buffer layer. The positive top contact is transparent, electrically conductive fluorine doped tin oxide. These layers may be laid down on a sacrificial foil in place of the glass in the process in the following pargraph. The sacrificial foil is removed after the cell is mounted to a permanent substrate.

Cadmium telluride solar cell on glass or metal.

A process for depositing cadmium telluride on glass begins with the deposition of N-type transparent, electrically conducive, tin oxide on a glass substrate. The next layer is P-type cadmium telluride; though, N-type or intrinsic may be used. These two layers constitute the NP junction. A P+ (heavy P-type) layer of lead telluride aids in establishing a low resistance contact. A metal layer makes the final contact to the lead telluride. These layers may be laid down by vacuum deposition, chemical vapor deposition (CVD), screen printing, electrodeposition, or atmospheric pressure chemical vapor deposition (APCVD) in helium.

A variation of cadmium telluride is mercury cadmium telluride. Having lower bulk resistance and lower contact resistance improves efficiency over cadmium telluride.

Cadmium Indium Gallium diSelenide solar cell (CIGS)

Cadmium Indium Gallium diSelenide: A most promising thin film solar cell at this time (2007) is manufactured on a ten inch wide roll of flexible polyimide– Cadmium Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS). It has a spectacular efficiency of 10%. Though, commercial grade crystalline silicon cells surpassed this decades ago, CIGS should be cost competitive. The deposition processes are at a low enough temperature to use a polyimide polymer as a substrate instead of metal or glass. (Figure above) The CIGS is manufactured in a roll to roll process, which should drive down costs. GIGS cells may also be produced by an inherently low cost electrochemical process.

  • Most solar cells are silicon single crystal or multicrystal because of their good efficiency and moderate cost.
  • Less efficient thin films of various amorphous or polycrystalline materials comprise the rest of the market.
  • Table below compares selected solar cells.

Solar cell properties

Solar cell typeMaximum efficiencyPractical efficiencyNotes
Selenium, polycrystalline0.7%1883, Charles Fritts
Silicon, single crystal4%1950’s, first silicon solar cell
Silicon, single crystal PERL, terrestrial, space25%solar cars, cost=100x commercial
Silicon, single crystal, commercial terrestrial24%14-17%$5-$10/peak watt
Cypress Semiconductor, Sunpower, silicon single crystal21.5%19%all contacts on cell back
Gallium Indium Phosphide/ Gallium Arsenide/ Germanium, single crystal, multilayer32%Preferred for space.
Advanced terrestrial version of above.40.7%Uses optical concentrator.
Silicon, multicrystalline18.5%15.5%
Thin films,
Silicon, amorphous13%5-7%Degrades in sun light. Good indoors for calculators or cloudy outdoors.
Cadmium telluride, polycrystalline16%glass or metal substrate
Copper indium arsenide diselenide, polycrystalline18%10%10 inch flexible polymer web.
Organic polymer, 100% plastic4.5%R&D project

Article Extracted from Tony R. Kuphaldt Lessons In Electric Circuits — Volume III Chapter 3 under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.

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