Photovoltaic Cell Basics

Photovoltaic (PV) cells, or solar cells, take advantage of the photoelectric effect to produce electricity. PV cells are the building blocks of all PV systems because they are the devices that convert sunlight to electricity.

Solar-Cell           Solar-Cell

Commonly known as solar cells, individual PV cells are electricity-producing devices made of semiconductor materials. PV cells come in many sizes and shapes, from smaller than a postage stamp to several inches across. They are often connected together to form PVmodules that may be up to several feet long and a few feet wide.

Modules, in turn, can be combined and connected to form PV arrays of different sizes and power output. The modules of the array make up the major part of a PV system, which can also include electrical connections, mounting hardware, power-conditioning equipment, and batteries that store solar energy for use when the sun is not shining.

When light shines on a PV cell, it may be reflected, absorbed, or pass right through. But only the absorbed light generates electricity. The energy of the absorbed light is transferred to electrons in the atoms of the PV cell semiconductor material. With their newfound energy, these electrons escape from their normal positions in the atoms and become part of the electrical flow, or current, in an electrical circuit. A special electrical property of the PV cell—what is called a “built-in electric field”—provides the force, or voltage, needed to drive the current through an external load, such as a light bulb.


Crystalline silicon PV cells are the most common photovoltaic cells in use today. They are also the earliest successful PV devices. Therefore, crystalline silicon solar cells provide a good example of typical PV cell functionality.

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