Thus began a flurry of activity in the photovoltaic field, but try as they may, no one could construct a solar cell efficient enough for everyday power needs. As one scientist lamented in 1949, “It must be left to the future whether the discovery of materially more efficient cells will reopen the possibility of harnessing solar energy for useful purposes.” Four years later this happened four years at Bell Laboratories when scientists moved silicon semiconductor electronics from theory to working devices.
The silicon surpriseOn a whim, Gerald Pearson, a Bell scientist, in 1953 exposed to light one of these early pieces of silicon. To his surprise, he recorded an efficiency of almost six times greater than any other solar cell had ever produced. Like a latter day Archimedes, he ran down the hall at Bell Laboratories, shouting to a colleague, Daryl Chapin, who was working at the time on very inefficient selenium solar cells for a remote telephone power project, “Don’t waste another moment on selenium!,” and gave him the silicon strip with which he had just experimented.
The Bell Solar Battery project that produced the most significant advance in solar history and perhaps, in the history of electricity
So began the Bell Solar Battery project that produced the most significant advance in solar history and perhaps, in the history of electricity – the silicon solar cell - the first photovoltaic device capable of converting enough sunlight directly into electricity for useful purposes and the sire of today’s solar revolution. In fact, if not for the research and development of the silicon solar cell at Bell Laboratories more than sixty years ago, there would be no solar industry to speak of today.
It was therefore very prescient that the day after Bell presented to the world the first practical solar cell for the New York Times to write that the invention marked “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams - the harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”
Written by John Perlin, solar historian and author of Let It Shine, The 6,000-year story of solar energy
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