Solar Energy and Materials Science

In the same way ancient civilizations mixed clay to make pottery, and metalworkers studied different metals to create stainless steel, materials that react to light have been studied at an atomic level and we are now able to turn that understanding into electricity. Although you may not expect it, “Materials Science” is the foundation for the solar energy industry today. 

What is “Materials Science”?

Thanks to valuable research in material science, you enjoy things like the internet, light bulbs, batteries, touch screens, comfy couches, warm socks, post-it notes, and non-stick cookie sheets every day. 

“Materials science” is exactly what it sounds like — it is the focused study of materials. Materials are any type of solid matter: metals, semiconductors, plastics, or minerals. 

The information we learn in materials science is directly related to the general progress of important research in chemistry and physics. Advances in research techniques and physics have given us new ways to study materials and control very specific properties. Some amazing advances are:

  • Magnification: We are able to image very small materials using powerful scanning electron microscopy and scanning probe microscopy 
  • Mixing: We are able to control how much of one material is combined with another to get the exact ratio we want, using physics or chemistry.
  • Manipulating: We are able to control the shape and layout of the atoms to make materials smaller, stronger, and more compact. 
  • Measuring: We can measure more accurately to the nanometer level (1E-9 meter)

What are “Photovoltaic” materials? 

Materials that turn light into electricity are called “Photovoltaic” (photo = light, voltaic = electricity). To understand solar energy, we’ll focus on materials used for solar panels and photovoltaic devices. This includes elements from the periodic table, such as silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), gallium (Ga), and also combinations of these elements. These amazing materials have a unique relationship with light which can be harnessed to make electricity. 

Typically, these elements are spread across a film or applied as a coating on glass so they have more surface area to receive light. Sometimes, they are mixed with other elements or modified to better transmit electricity. 

Here are some combinations of elements from the periodic table that are used in solar panels:

  • Silicon (Si)
  • Gallium (Ga) and Arsenic (As) on a layer of Germanium (Ge)
  • Copper (Cu), Indium (In), Gallium (Ga), and Selenium (Se) thin films (CIGS)
  • Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)

Key Takeaway

“Materials science” impacts our lives everyday. Solar energy is just one result of decades of focused chemistry and physics research. 

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Featured image photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash