History of the Solar Panel
The first photovoltaic solar cell was built in 1883 by an American inventor, Charles Fritts. He created a cell using gold and selenium that was around 1% efficient. These selenium cells were too expensive for use as power generators, but were used up until the 1960 as light sensors for cameras.
The first modern style solar cells was patented by another American, Russell Ohl, in 1946. This was followed up by developments at Bell Laboratories who accidentally found that silicon could be made to be very sensitive to light. This lead to the production of a solar panel with 6% efficiency in the mid-1950s.
The benefits of solar power were quickly realised by NASA - the concept of a satellite that could be self-sufficient meant that geostationary communications satellites could be developed. The first satellite to be fitted with solar panels was the Vanguard 1, launched by the US in 1958.
Both Russian and American advances in solar development continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, driven by the space race. By the late 1980s, efficiencies were reaching 17%, rising to 24% by the turn of the century.
Today, high efficiency space-quality solar cells are being tested that are up to 40% efficient.
For the first time, however, the development of photovoltaic solar cells is now being funded by industry as much as by space research. The focus now is on making solar cells cheaper and more reliably than ever before. Much of the effort is being put on amorphous panels, which although are far less efficient, are far more cost effective.
Several companies are now screen printing amorphous thin film solar panels and claim that they will be able to sell these for around 80p/watt by the end of the decade (down from around £3 per watt now). At these projected costs, solar power becomes one of the cheapest forms of electricity production in the world.
Several car manufacturers are now planning electric cars with solar panels built into the roof of the cars. Whilst the solar panels themselves will not produce enough electricity to power the cars entirely, the panels will be enough to supplement the charge of the cars - extending their range by 3 to 5 miles a day.
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