From Selenium to Silicon and Beyond


newspaperThe solar cell had its birth in 1873, as bars of selenium. When two British scientists, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day, in 1876, exposed the bars to candlelight they discovered something totally new: that light, not heat, could directly generate electricity in certain materials such as selenium. Adams and Day called the current produced this way, “photoelectric.” But try as they may, no one could increase selenium’s low conversion of sunlight into electricity and scientists concluded that to realize the vision of solar cells powering the world would require finding a new photovoltaic material.

That came when the collaborative effort of Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson at Bell Laboratories developed a photovoltaic device capable of converting enough sunlight directly into electricity to generate useful amounts of power. Their public display at Bell’s press conference on April 25, 1954 of a 21-inch Ferris wheel spinning round and round powered by the first watt of silicon solar cells presented to the world one of the most significant breakthroughs ever recorded in the history of solar energy and of electricity. The New York Times realized the importance of what its reporters saw, stating on its front page that the invention of the Bell silicon solar cell marked “the beginning of a new era, eventually leading to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” US News and World Report speculated that the new solar cell “may provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium…[its] future is limitless.”

At the time of the Bell announcement in 1954, all the solar cells in the world delivered about one watt. Today, more than 100 billion watts of generating capacity of photovoltaics have been installed worldwide. This year not only marks the 60th anniversary of the silicon solar cell but also the beginning of reaching the Holy Grail solar scientists had only previously dreamed of – entering the Era of Grid Parity, where solar panels generate power at costs equal to or less than electricity produced by fossil fuels and nuclear. With the phenomenal growth of solar pv in the last several years and its future even brighter, the time is ripe to celebrate the founding of a technology that led Science magazine almost forty years ago to declare, “If there is a dream solar technology, it is photovoltaics ­­- solar cells...a space-age electronic marvel at once the most sophisticated solar technology and the simplest, most environmentally benign source of electricity yet conceived.”

Join us to celebrate the 60th birthday of practical photovoltaics and the great growth in solar electricity it has sired.

The material for the blog and upcoming world-wide celebration comes from John Perlin’s recently published book, Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy. For more information on the book, see the Renewable Energy Blog post "Let It Shine." The celebration will kick off in Palo Alto, California on April 18, 2014, where guests will get to meet some of the great remaining original solar pioneers and hear from the Mayor of Palo Alto how the city is procuring all its power from solar and other renewables. For more details, go to

4/6/2014 7:26:46 AM

I remember reading MEN in the 1970s. I am a big fan, but let's get real and poke a few sacred cows here. Wind Turbines The manufacture of 5, one-megawatt, wind turbines produces 1 ton of radioactive residue and 75 tons of hazardous waste water used to extract and process the needed neodymium. Neodymium is a rare earth mineral. Rare earth minerals are not rare, but they are found in very low concentrations. Neodymium is extracted from crushed rocks using sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide. Then it is processed using solvents, heating and vacuum techniques that require plenty of coal power. Vast unregulated tailings ponds of poisonous water have destroyed whole villages in China. There are 16 other rare elements. All with the same story. There is no known replacement for neodymium. During its mining, metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminum, lead and beryllium are released into the air and water, and are toxic to human health. Neodymium is only one of many rare-earth metals that our smart phones and green energy systems need, and Canada is making efforts to mine them right now. While neodymium is not used in very small wind turbines, can you imagine how many small windmills would be needed to run a huge city like Toronto? Solar Panels Each solar panel requires 4 tons of coal to manufacture them because the required silicon has to be baked for some time at 3,000°F. The manufacture of solar panels lets off some of the deadliest greenhouse gases known to humankind. These include hexafluoroethane (12,000 times stronger than CtO2), nitrogen trifluoride (17,000 times stronger than C02), and sulfur hexafluoride (23,000 times stronger than C02). Solar manufacturing plants produce 500 tons of hazardous sludge each per year. This sludge is never included in the solar industry carbon footprint data. All shiny new electronic things are super-poisonous and deadly serious for all life on earth. Bio-Fuels Bio-fuels are ecologically unsustainable. The crop mono-cultures are biodiversity deserts that increase soil erosion and have a myriad of unexpected consequences. Stand in a corn field and you will see nothing lives there, not even bees. 95% of food comes from just 30 crops. Food supplies are at risk going forward. We can't cut trees for cars when people starve. Our foods and animals already dominate the planet. We are earth's most invasive predators ripping all life's diversity from her loins. Rechargeable Batteries The rechargeable batteries we use in everything from the Tesla Electric Car, and Prius Plug-In Car, down to our smart phones, all rely on one critical component―graphite. Graphite is one of the main causes of the terrible air pollution in China. It comes from airborne particles given off by mining operations and often washes down from the sky with the rain. Graphite particles foul the air and water; they also damage crops and human lung tissue. This type of smog has gotten so bad that China has shut down several of their graphite mines, creating a shortage and higher prices. Right now, Algonquin natives in Kipawa, Quebec are fighting Toyota over a rare-earth open pit mine planned for that area. Toyota wants that mine pit to make the batteries for its Prius. There is no such thing as a “green” car.

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