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Short story of photovoltaic energy

26 January 2017

We consider a first approach to the history of the evolution of photovoltaic solar energy, distinguishing different phases.

The first phase consists of pioneering research on the discovery and development of the photovoltaic effect. It is classic to begin the enumeration of these investigations with the French Becquerel (1839). Names present in this period are those of Heinrich Hertz (1887) and that of the Russian Aleksandr Stoletov (1891).

Photoconductivity of different chemical elements (silicon, selenium, copper, silver selenide, cadmium selenide, copper, indium, germanium, gallium arsenide, lithium, among others) is studied.

Albert Einstein received in 1921 the Nobel of Physics for his studies and article published in 1904 on the photoconductivity "Heuristics of the generation and conversion of the light". The Polish Czochralski (1918) develops a method that takes its name to obtain ingots of monocrystalline silicon, usable in the manufacture of semiconductors. This method will be adapted some thirty years later by Gordon Teal and John B. Little.

The different modalities of photovoltaic cells are being constructed:

  • Of crystalline silicon.
  • Thin film or thin film.
  • Multi-junction cells: from a single junction to multi-junctions.
  • Organic solar cells: these appear much later: in the nineties.

One of the guiding lines of all these initial investigations was to gradually increase the level of efficiency or conversion of solar energy to electric, according to the method used. Obviously, at first the efficiency was minimal, but it was increasing progressively until reaching the high percentages with the current techniques.

Also in the decade of the 50 begins the space age with the launching of the first satellites. American companies are given the task of manufacturing the photovoltaic solar panels that will feed these satellites. Commercial licenses are granted. The main US company for this purpose is Hoffman Electronic. In 1958 Vanguard I, the first satellite powered by solar energy, was launched. In 1962 AT & T launched the first commercial telecommunications satellite, Telstar. The Russian spacecraft Soyuz 1 (1967): first manned spacecraft fueled with solar cells. The Soviet space stations of the program Salyut (1971) were fed with solar cells.

In 1973 the world production of photovoltaic cells reached 100 KW. In the late 1970s, NASA and the US Department of Energy evaluated the idea of ​​supplying terrestrial energy through space satellites. Related to the oil crisis of those years, the idea was rejected as prices fell in the 1980s.

In 1977 the production of solar photovoltaic panels in the world reached 500 kW. In 1983, world production exceeds 20 MW per year. In 1998 a total of 1,000 MWp of photovoltaic systems were installed and the International Space Station was launched.

The last phase, the development of photovoltaics in the 21st century will be discussed in another chapter.

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