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Who Invented Solar Panels?

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Nowadays, people talk about renewable energies like they will fix everything. They will not, but I’m still interested in the subject, as my house is being renovated (I talked about that in the article about the invention of adhesive tape) and I got rid of the Gas heater. Instead, I will only use electricity and I’m thinking about installing solar panels to help with that. This led me to search for:

Who Invented Solar Panels?

First of all, a solar panel is “a device that changes energy from the sun into electricity” (the simple definition given to us by the Cambridge Dictionary). But a solar panel is primarily a battery of solar cells.

The history of solar cells starts in 1839 with Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. This 19-year-old Frenchman had abandoned his studies to become his father’s assistant in the chair of physics applied to natural sciences. His father was Antoine César Becquerel, a pioneer in the study of electric and luminescent phenomena who, in 1829, invented a constant-current electrochemical cell.

Working in this same field of research, young Alexandre-Edmond discovered the photovoltaic effect or, as he explained it, “the production of an electric current when two plates of platinum or gold immersed in an acid, neutral, or alkaline solution are exposed in an uneven way to solar radiation.”

Discovering the effect didn’t immediately lead to the creation of solar cells. In fact, this effect continued to be studied for years in order to be clearly explained, understood, and recognized by the scientific community—this really happened when Albert Einstein was given the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect.

Because of that, some are calling Einstein the father of Solar Energy, but the first solar panel was invented by Charles Fritts in 1883. He may be a bit more deserving of the title.

The Father of Solar Energy

Fritts was an American inventor credited with creating the first working selenium cell in 1883. However, he was not the one who discovered photoconductivity in selenium. It was English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith who observed it first while experimenting with materials for building underwater telegraph cables. Then, natural philosophy professor William Grylls Adams and his student, Richard Evans Day, learned about it and really worked on the question, publishing the definitive article on the subject, “The Action of Light on Selenium,” in 1877.

Though, it was Charles Fritts who became the first to make it work. His creation was a glass box containing a selenium sheet housed between two metallic layers. When the light hit the box, electrons moved through the selenium and a current was produced.

This happened during the commercial electricity revolution in New York—I already wrote about that in my article about the discovery of electricity—, but Fritts couldn’t really compete with Thomas Edison’s first electric power plant as his selenium cell only made use of about 1% of the sunlight. It was not enough to make his invention commercial.

Bell Labs 1954 solar battery (source).

The Commercial Solar Energy

It took years to turn solar energy into a viable alternative. In 1954, Calvin Souther Fuller, Daryl Chapin, and Gerald Pearson, scientists at Bell Laboratories, invented the first solar cell with 4% efficiency. It was a game changer, as it was the first with sufficient efficiency to run everyday equipment. Three years later, Hoffman Electronics doubled that efficiency—and went up to 14% in 1960.

It was in 1958 that solar cells (the Hoffman ones) were first used in a prominent application. That year, NASA used them on the Vanguard satellite as an alternative power source to the primary battery power source. The following year, Explorer 6 was equipped with large wing-shaped solar arrays—it then became a common feature in satellites.

Today, new types of solar cells are still being developed in search of better efficiency (to charge your electric car!)

If you dream of a future made of Green Energy, you might want to read some Solarpunk. Also, I recently wrote about the invention of the LED.

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