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Solar Energy History

As the Australian government advocates for the use of solar power, a large number of the population only think about solar energy in terms of solar panels on rooftops or the solar photovoltaic systems that power homes. However, solar energy encompasses everything that runs on solar energy, not just solar panels.

With the growing number of people and organisations opting to use solar energy every year, how many know about its history? What's the science behind solar energy? Who invented solar energy?

As we celebrate recent successes in the use of solar energy, such as the Mars rover powered by solar, it is also worth learning about the history of solar energy. In this article, we're going to explore the history of solar energy in detail, who created solar panels, and much more. Let's dive in.

What Is The Science Behind Solar Power?

Early methods of harnessing the power of the sun may have influenced the techniques we use today, such as the development and creation of solar panels. Several individuals, projects, and studies have contributed to the development of solar panels and the current solar power industry.

To fully comprehend the history of solar power and the science behind solar panels, one must understand two concepts; photoelectric effect and photovoltaic, as they are the modern basis of solar energy. Let's start with the photoelectric effect.

Photoelectric Effect

The photoelectric effect is triggered when a substance or material gets exposed to radiation, such as light, which causes electrons within the substance to emit as free particles. When light strikes an object of metal when it is illuminated, the electrons within the metal will absorb energy and then become exuberant.

This means the solar energy will boost the kinetic energy of electrons. If the power of an electron is high enough to surpass the energy binding to the atom, then the electron will break free as a free-floating particle.

Photovoltaic Effect

The photovoltaic effect, just like the photoelectric effect, happens when a substance or material gets exposed to light which causes electrons within the material to be excited. But, while the photoelectric effect produces particle emission, the photovoltaic effect results in an electric charge. That means the electrons don't get ejected but remain within the material.

This effect can be observed in semiconductors or any other material with a conductivity that is between the conductor and the insulator. When light strikes the surface of a semiconductor, electrons are unable to leave the material just like they did in the photoelectric effect.

In contrast, when electrons absorb energy and are excited, they go into a state. This is when electrons are released so that they can pass through the line between two distinct substances. This leads to the formation of electric energy.

When Was Solar Energy First Used?

Solar energy was in use as early as the 3rd Century B.C. people used sunlight to light fires using a magnifying glass. Romans and Greeks harnessed solar power using mirrors to light torches during worship rituals. The Chinese civilization documented the use of mirrors after 20 A.D.

Another application of solar energy is passive solar. This is the idea of sunrooms within buildings. Sunrooms are built with massive windows to channel sunlight onto an ample space. More uses of solar energy can be traced to the Romans as well as the Anasazi, the ancestors of pueblo native Americans from 1200A.D.

In the late 1800s and the late 1700s, researchers and scientists enjoyed the ability to harness solar energy as a source of power for ovens used for long trips. They also utilised the sun's power to make steamboats powered by solar energy. It is evident that for many thousands of years before the time that solar panels were invented, the idea of harnessing the sun's energy was an established practice.

Who Invented Solar Power?

Before we get to who invented solar panels, it's important to know who invented solar power. The background of solar panels goes to the 19th century of France. It begins with the physicist Edmond Becquerel and his discovery of the photovoltaic effect.

The photovoltaic effect is the generation of electricity and voltage by a substance exposed to light. This is the general premise on which all solar panels function. The discovery gradually made other scientists interested in the effects of solar panels. In the next few years, they began making themselves solar-powered patents.

French mathematician Augustin Mouchot created the first one. In the 1850s, Mouchot registered his engines which produced solar energy. By 1888, there were several similar machines around the world.

Who Invented Solar Cells?

In his research, Edmond Becquerel demonstrated the photovoltaic effect by using two plates of gold and platinum submerged in neutral acid, or alkaline solution, and exposed to solar radiation. This was the initial electrochemical device. However, it wasn't efficient and was restricted to lab applications.

In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that Selenium was a highly effective material to produce photovoltaic power. In 1881, inventor Charles Fritts created the first solar cell that didn't need to be immersed in a solution. The first solid-state photovoltaic cell comprised Selenium coated in the form of a fine layer of gold.

When Was The First Solar Cell Invented?

Solar panels are composed of tiny solar cells. In 1888 Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov created early photoelectric solar cells. The photoelectric effect is linked with the photovoltaic effect. The first person to see this was German scientist Heinrich Hertz.

The 1888 solar cell used the same concept (only without silicon). In the following years, researchers employed the photoelectric effect to refine it. They discovered that sunlight and heat could generate electricity. They began to use thermos piles (solar cells) to produce heat, light, and electricity.

Who Invented Solar Panels?

If you've been wondering who invented solar panels, your curiosity can end here. Charles Fritts invented one of the most distant predecessors of the current solar panels. He developed one of the first solar cells that relied on Selenium. From 1884 the first solar roofing was in operation in New York City. However, later on, they realised that selenium-based cells weren't economical.

Another research scientist Russel Ohl replaced the element selenium in 1941 with silicon. In the 1960s, his silicon solar cells had a solar efficiency of 55%. This is the total amount of solar energy that can transform into usable energy.

How Do Solar Panels Function?

The light (photons) hitting certain compounds, particularly metals, causes the surface to release electrons. The impact of light on other compounds causes the material's surface to accept electrons.

This is because the two compounds' interaction allows electrons to move through a conductor. In turn, they generate electricity. This is the phenomenon we call the "photoelectric" effect. Photovoltaic (or P.V.) is the term used to describe sunlight changing into an electron flow (electricity).

Solar Panels As Alternative Energy Sources

The need for alternative sources of energy began in the 1970s. A shortage of oil made people aware of the dependency on foreign energy sources. Due to high inflation, Americans were pushed to the limit economically, and the shortage of essentials led to the need for more development. At this time, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels put on the White House roof.

It was an attempt to make clean electricity from solar more accessible to people and also to raise awareness. With the increase in interest in solar installations in recent years, the cost and efficiency have slowly improved. Because solar power panels have been developed to increase efficiency and be less expensive, solar has become a viable option for ordinary people to create electricity for their homes and businesses.

Perhaps the most significant advances in solar panel efficiencies and cost have happened in the last couple of years. Solar power is rapidly growing as a power source for Australia and around the globe. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency has accelerated commercial solar for businesses and consumers by providing modern solar finance for equipment such as solar inverters and creating solar farms.

The feed-in tariffs and solar challenge have also caused a growth in the use of solar energy. Solar cars, solar hot water heaters, as well as home solar heating are some of the solar options the department of energy is advocating for. The potential to use the sun's energy to directly meet our power requirements is enormous.

Some of the advantages of solar panels are:

  • Producing electricity without pollution or waste hence no need to rely on the earth's non-renewable resources.
  • They don't have moving parts, making them highly reliable and can last for a long time.
  • They are very simple to set up and extremely low maintenance.
  • Solar panels can be used to produce power near the point where you consume it. This means that you don't have to transport electricity and distribute it across long distances to remote locations.

A great feature of solar power is that the installation size is feasible compared to conventional methods where power stations generate electricity that requires maintenance and large-scale plants.

A Summary Of Solar Energy History

As you've seen, solar energy is not new; it dates back to 3. B.C., where ancient civilizations used solar energy but had no idea of how it would become one of the most adored forms of energy hundreds of years later.

The world was introduced to the first precursors to the solar panels we have today during the 1890s. They were inventions by French, German, and Russian scientists. These machines set the stage for the solar-powered structures we currently use.

Yet one of the most significant innovations in the solar panel's history wouldn't be possible without Russel Ohl. The use of silicon by Ohl in 1941 resulted in the most advanced solar-powered structures.

What Is The Future Of Solar Energy?

Going back to the early photovoltaic cells created by Bell Labs, it had an efficiency of 6%. This means that 94% of the sunlight they received did not convert to usable electricity. Hoffman electronics showed its possible to increase this efficiency in 1957. They built a 9% efficient solar photovoltaic cell and improved it to 10% in 1960.

In 1985, the University of South Wales set a silicon solar efficiency record of over 20%. However, today, P.V. systems are 15% efficient. This can be attributed to scientists testing new technologies to improve efficiency while making solar panels more efficient. An excellent example of solar energy research is the use of gallium arsenide.

This material is light sensitive and could be more effective than existing P.V. cells. Also, research on improving the efficiency of solar batteries will help make them more efficient while also reducing their cost. As solar technology improves and new solar cells are created using new materials, this will increase their efficiency at making light energy.

With a decrease in prices, solar power is expected to become one of the major renewable energy technologies in the coming years. If you're a homeowner or business owner, it all starts with a solar installation to make yourself a part of this bright future (pun intended). So why not invest in solar energy using qualified solar specialists and leave fossil fuels in the dark.