When you were a kid trying to light ants on fire through a magnifying glass, you were relying on solar energy. When you were sitting in a classroom at your desk trying to work through math homework, your calculator was likely powered with solar cells. Solar power is integrated in our lives without us realizing it. The benefits of solar panel installations are increasing with technological developments and market growth. Throughout the years the sun has sparked interest and intrigue. Although solar panels look like a futuristic device, the science behind harnessing energy from the sun has been around for centuries.
Way back in the BC years, there is evidence that people were using the sun to light fires. The light was concentrated through a magnifying glass in the same way kids apply this technique today. Greek history tells of Archimedes using the sun’s rays to catch enemy Roman ships on fire. Historians disagree about whether or not this happened, but the concept of capitalizing on the sun’s energy is there regardless.
Several centuries after the BC time period, Edmund Becquerel helped solar energy developments continue. In 1839 the Photovoltaic Effect was introduced to the science community. It was discovered that two electrodes placed in an electrolyte develop a voltage when light hits. This is the basic idea behind solar power. It was revolutionary for scientists, but not for average people.
In 1876, professor William Grylls Adams and his student were the first ones who were able to produce electricity from sunlight. They attached electrodes to a plate of selenium, which is a mineral found naturally in soil. The scientists observed a small amount of electricity when the selenium was exposed to light. This development was an important step toward bringing solar panel installations to your home.
A couple years later in 1883 a man named Charles Fritts invented the first solar cell. Solar cells are what convert sunlight into electricity. Fritts created simple designs for these solar cells, but they weren’t very efficient.
As with many revolutionary scientific discoveries, Albert Einstein contributed to solar energy development. He wrote a paper in 1904 about the photoelectric effect. The photoelectric effect describes how light particles called photons can free electrons on a metal surface. Einstein eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work and contribution to the scientific community in this paper.
Fast forward to 1954 when all of these scientific building blocks lead to a solar technology breakthrough. A group of three scientists collaborated to make the world’s first photovoltaic cell, also known as a silicon solar cell. Silicon was found to be more efficient in solar power than selenium. These three men were able to make a device that converted sunlight into electricity. Their discovery was the foundation for modern solar cell technology.
The technology for solar panels was available in the 1950s, but it was far too expensive for residential or commercial installations. Solar electricity was impractical for everyday use until the 1970s when technological advances made it more affordable and more compact. By using lower-cost materials to manufacture the panels, solar energy became an accessible solution.
Solar panels gained momentum with the growth in climate change awareness and environmental protection initiatives. Clean, renewable energy resources are widely sought after solutions to reducing the global carbon footprint. As the solar technology develops, the benefits of solar panel installations increase. Today, these benefits include financial rewards, environmental service and energy efficiency advantages.
Humans have a natural appreciation for the sun’s energy. As kids, we focused the sun’s rays on anthills. Scientists have built upon that concept for centuries, leading us to the solar panel technology of today. As this technology develops, the advantages of solar panel installations increase. This clean energy solution will continue to spark intrigue and power our lives in more ways than we realize. At least now we’ll recognize how people jumped from playing with sunlight and a magnifying glass to powering buildings by harnessing the sun’s energy.