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Stylized Text: How PV Cells Work.

A typical silicon PV cell is composed of a thin wafer consisting of an ultra-thin layer of phosphorus-doped (N-type) silicon on top of a thicker layer of boron-doped (P-type) silicon. An electrical field is created near the top surface of the cell where these two materials are in contact, called the P-N junction. When sunlight strikes the surface of a PV cell, this electrical field provides momentum and direction to light-stimulated electrons, resulting in a flow of current when the solar cell is connected to an electrical load

A diagram explaining how a PV cell generates electricity.

Figure 1. Diagram of a photovoltaic cell.

Regardless of size, a typical silicon PV cell produces about 0.5 – 0.6 volt DC under open-circuit, no-load conditions. The current (and power) output of a PV cell depends on its efficiency and size (surface area), and is proportional to the intensity of sunlight striking the surface of the cell. For example, under peak sunlight conditions, a typical commercial PV cell with a surface area of 160 cm^2 (~25 in^2) will produce about 2 watts peak power. If the sunlight intensity were 40 percent of peak, this cell would produce about 0.8 watts.

The U.S. Department of Energy has produced a QuickTime video of how a PV cell works. Take a look (Downloadable MPEG file).