100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Solar Cells
Year of Invention: 1954

What Is It? A chemical process to convert the sun’s radiation into electricity.
Who Invented It? David Chapin and Carl Fuller (in New Jersey)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Electricity is our most important energy source. Yet most of our electricity comes from nonrenewable resources—coal, oil, and gas—that also create millions of tons of pollutants and contribute to the greenhouse gasses that spawn global warming.

The only permanent solution is to shift our energy dependence to renewable, nonpolluting sources. Of these, the sun offers the greatest potential. Solar cells convert sunlight directly into electricity and represent our best hope for a “permanent” supply of essential electricity.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Solar energy has been used as a heat source for thousands of years. Archimedes reflected concentrated solar light off polished shields onto the sails of attacking Roman ships in 240 B.C. and “reduced the Roman Navy to ashes.”

Clothes are dried in the sun. Water is heated by focusing solar radiation on it. In 1768, French scientist Antoine Lavoisier built a series of curved mirrors to focus solar energy in a concentrated spot to run a solar furnace that could reach 3,300°F. He also built a steam engine driven by concentrated solar energy.


How Were Solar Cells Invented?

French physicist Edmond Becquerel was the first to discover that sunlight could induce an electrical current. In 1839, Becquerel submerged the ends of two metal strips in an acid bath. He connected the exposed ends of the strips through a light bulb and a meter to measure electrical flow.

Over the course of months, Becquerel tested different metals and combinations of metals for the two strips he used. One day he realized that the amount of electricity his metal strips produced often increased when the two metal strips were placed in direct sunlight. It depended on the metals he used, but he often noticed a marked increase in electrical current

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