What Are Solar Panels Made Of?

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Jack Ayre

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If you’re considering a solar energy setup for your home, then you may be weighing up the environmental impact of solar panels and indeed what solar panels are made up of. A complete solar PV system’s prime components include panels, racking, batteries, and an inverter. The panels themselves consist of photovoltaic cells made of silicon material, metal frames, glass sheets, and bus wires.

All these materials tie up to a renewable energy grid for your household. That said, you can choose between multiple types of panels, such as monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Stick around to learn more about what solar panels are made of and some of the environmental impact of their production.

What Makes Up a Solar Panel?

Electrical engineers responsible for creating solar panels use standard materials, including metal frames, wiring, glass sheets, and, most important of all, photovoltaic solar cells.

Silicon

Silicon is the building block material of solar panel production. It makes up over 27% of the earth’s crust layer, making it the second most available element in the earth’s crust, next to oxygen. Silica is responsible for creating semiconductors that trigger electric currents from solar sources.

Apart from its conducting ability and abundance, engineers also use silicon for its chemical composition since it easily works with the photovoltaic effect to produce electric output from light energy.

Photovoltaic Cells

Photovoltaic cells (PV) are integral to the solar panel manufacturing process. They are composed of multiple layers of silicon and other materials including boron, phosphorus, or gallium. When creating the PV cells, you must have a positive and negative charge or P-type and N-type silicon.

The P-type silicon is usually made of silicon and boron or gallium. Meanwhile, manufacturers build the N-type silicon using silicon and phosphorus. Combining the negative and positive charged layers produces an electric field.

Metal Frames

Metal frames provide weather protection and allow you to mount solar panels at different positions. Producers may use multiple kinds of metal, like aluminium, copper, steel, zinc, and silver.

Glass Sheets

The glass sheets function as a protectant to the silicon solar cells. They’re around 6-7mm in thickness. An insulation layer lines the glass sheet’s interior to restrict heat and humidity, though this can decrease solar energy output efficiency.

In turn, engineers are consistently researching methods to take in light while limiting the heat for maximum energy efficiency. Besides that, the glass material used in solar panels must be strong and safe.

Some manufacturers use added materials on the glass to enhance its function. For instance, an anti-reflective coating can be installed before tempering the glass, and this increases energy efficiency.

Another layer, like a light-trapping surface, can maximise retaining solar radiation and limits the absorption of flat-angle radiation.

Bus Wires

Engineers interweave bus wires to connect the silicon layers and allow the charges from the electric field to move uniformly.

Subsequently, the solar panel wires must be thick enough to transfer the electric current through the layers. The wires adjoin the layers in a parallel manner and are encased in a thin layer for more convenient soldering.

Where Do Solar Panel Materials Come From?

One of the prime components of solar panels is silicon. In its pure form, the element doesn’t exist naturally, and instead, the silicon is often fused due to oxygen with other rock fragments such as granite, sandstone, and obsidian.

In that form, it’s called silica. It’s typically mined from sand sources. Some mining companies extract silica from other areas abundant in talk, quartzite, and mica.

Once mined, the silica-fused element goes through a heating process with carbon to remove oxygen. Producers are left with metallurgical-grade silicon.

What Do You Need to Create a Solar Panel System?

A solar panel system consists of an inverter, panels, batteries, and racking. Each component plays a vital role in the solar panels’ function.

Inverter

An inverter converts direct current (DC) energy from the solar panel into alternating current (AC) for households to use and power their electric grid. They can come in two variations, micro and string inverters.

String Inverters

String inverters are placed between the property’s electrical panel and solar panels. Even though they’re less costly, string inverters aren’t as well-regulated as micro-inverters. One faulty solar panel can affect the inverter’s functionality.

Micro-Inverters

Unlike string inverters, some solar panels come attached to micro-inverters.They’re more efficient since micro-inverters use direct current coming from the combined effort of all the solar panels rather than being limited by a nonfunctional one. Nonetheless, they’re usually more costly than string inverters.

Panels

The panels are the prime element that your light energy system uses. When choosing a panel, you’ll want to pick one that’s as heat-resistant as possible. Heat doesn’t power solar energy, it’s the sunlight where all the energy comes from. In turn, solar panels with insulated interiors offer better durability against harsh elements to increase efficiency.

That said, panels come in various types, including monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin films. Each offers its benefits and drawbacks. Keep in mind that the panels are a long-time investment that can last up to three decades.

Junction Box

The junction box is a critical part of a solar panel. It provides the connection of solar panels to electrical circuits. It uses mechanical and electrical elements to function.

The box restricts electrical current to move back to the solar panels, specifically during nighttime or dark and overcast days.

Racking

The racking is the mounting system you’ll use to attach the solar panels to your roof. You’ll likely require professional assistance when installing your system.

Batteries

You’ve likely wondered how solar-powered homes stay lit at night. Well, thanks to batteries, you can store energy from the morning sun to use at night.

Types of Solar Panels

The solar panel industry consists of various types, from monocrystalline to thin film productions. Each option has different compositions and production processes.

Monocrystalline

As their name suggests, monocrystalline solar panels are made of a single silicon block. Creating them involves using a pure silicon seed to develop a pure silicon ingot.

Manufacturers use the Czochralski method when developing pure silicon material. The method involves crystal growth technology, where engineers insert the crystal seed into a pool of melted silicon rocks and fragments.

A specialised machine then pulls the seed using a rotation technique to create the rod or cylindrical single silicon ingot.

Next, machines slice the rods into thin silicon wafers to form the monocrystalline, which can be around 0.3mm thick.

Benefits

As a single crystal, the monocrystalline solar panel produces more electron flow. Consequently, they can create the same energy output as larger polycrystalline solar panels. In other words, they won’t take up as much space.

Additionally, the solar panel type can also last the longest, having a lifespan of about 25 to 30 years. In some cases, they can even last 40 years. Overall, it’s one of the most commonly used solar panel types in the industry.

Drawbacks

Despite being one of the most commonly used solar panel types in the UK, monocrystalline options have some drawbacks.

Melting the silicon dioxide to create the crystal rod requires lots of energy expenditure. A loss of heat can tamper with the rod’s efficacy and result in 50% of material waste.

On top of waste and high energy, the production process necessitates high costs as well. Plus, their efficiency depletes in moments of decreased direct light exposure. For instance, if snow, dirt, debris, or leaves compromise the panels, they’ll lose their optimum performance.

Polycrystalline

Unlike monocrystalline solar panels, their polycrystalline counterparts are made with several fused silicon crystal particles. They’re also referred to as multi-crystalline or many-crystal silicon and their  production differs from the monocrystalline method in terms of extraction.

Rather than use a crystal seed to pull out a rod, the polycrystalline technique primarily uses the molten silicon fragment material. Manufacturers mould cubes from the molten mixture and slice it to form the polycrystalline solar panel.

Benefits

Polycrystalline solar panels are better than monocrystalline options in terms of cost-effectiveness. Producers don’t have to rely on a single crystal rod to produce silicon wafers.

Despite not yielding as much electron flow, the polycrystalline panels perform more efficiently in low-light conditions. In turn, they don’t rely as much on direct sunlight exposure as monocrystalline panels. 

Drawbacks

One of the cons of owning a polycrystalline solar panel is its size. It produces as much electric output as a monocrystalline but with larger surface area coverage. Consequently, it’ll require more space when it comes to installations.

Additionally, polycrystalline solar panels don’t produce as much electron flow as monocrystalline options. It’s because the melted fragments within the wafers limit the room for electron movement.

With that in mind, their efficiency rating is around 13% to 16%, slightly lower than the single crystal silicon. Colour-wise, polycrystalline panels are blue, which may stand out more compared to the black monocrystalline solar panels.

That said, the solar panel isn’t as durable as the single silicon panel when exposed to extreme heat. Nevertheless, they can still last between 20 and 35 years.

Thin Film

As their name implies, thin film solar panels use fewer amounts of material than mono or polycrystalline panels. The silicon layer used in thin film solar panel productions can be as thin as 1/300th of the standard mono and polycrystalline panels’ width.

Workers tend to use a lower-grade silicon material than other productions when creating thin film panels. They may use non-crystalline amorphous silicon.

Now, the material isn’t as semiconductive as crystalline. Consequently, engineers need to fuse the material with hydrogen to promote conductivity.

You might find amorphous silicon in everyday objects, including watches and calculators. Their composition is bendy. They’re attached to a substrate like glass, metal, or plastic.

Engineers may use other semiconductor materials to create thin films, such as copper indium gallium diselenide, gallium arsenide, or cadmium telluride.

Benefits

Since the materials of thin film are more readily available, they tend to be more affordable to produce. They use less material because the semiconductors within have higher absorption rates than crystalline panels.

Besides that, thin film panels are also easier to create and require less time. For example, with copper indium gallium diselenide solar cells, producers only put it on plastic for increased flexibility and reduced weight.

Drawbacks

Even though thin film panels are more affordable and take less time to create, they can pose risks. To demonstrate, the cadmium in cadmium telluride thin films can be toxic when inhaled. In some cases, the element can leak through water supplies and the ground when improperly disposed of or handled.

Bifacial

Traditionally, solar panels come with one side that absorbs the light energy. It reflects the energy it can’t capture. Now, bifacial solar panels have two light energy-absorbing sides. It can absorb light bouncing off other materials or the ground.

Bifacial panels are primarily common in commercial and utility applications since they’d be impractical if mounted in residential spaces. You can place them on top of pergolas since they have an open roof.

Benefits

The double-faced panel can generate up to 9% more current than its mono-facial counterpart. 

Drawbacks

Their application is limited. Their use in households will be comparatively similar to monofacial options.

Dye-Sensitised Solar Cells (DSSR)

DSSR uses photovoltaic technology to create solar energy. The cells rely on a sensitizer molecule for the conversion of light energy to electricity. They don’t use silicone, making them more cost-effective. Despite that, DSSRs are still a work in progress.

They are currently unstable for commercial use. Their efficiency is also low compared to silicon cells. Nevertheless, they provide around 15% efficiency, offering some potential for this solar panel material.

Perovskite Cells

Perovskite solar cells can offer an easy-to-produce and cost-effective solution as a solar panel. Nonetheless, the material remains unstable and it is not durable against the elements of high heat, humidity, and oxidation. In turn, the solar cell is yet to be commercially available.

Organic Photovoltaic

Organic photovoltaic technology makes use of organic polymers to conduct solar energy. The solar cells used are lighter and produce less waste during production.

The materials needed to create the organic panels are widely available, reducing costs. Plus, manufacturers can use a variety of substrates to accommodate the organic cell technology.

Concentrator Photovoltaic Technology

The concentrator photovoltaic technology (CPV) uses an optical device to concentrate solar rays into the panels. These devices can be curved mirrors that’ll redirect sunlight.

Since the panels are getting more light energy, they won’t require as many cells. In turn, engineers can use high-grade solar cells without risking high costs.

Creating Solar Panels

Producing solar panels starts with PV cells. A panel can hold 32, 36, 48, 60, 72, or 96 cells. In most cases, you’ll need 60 or 72. These cells are combined using a frame to create the panel. Firstly, workers arrange the cells to form the desired panel size.

Then, the cells are soldered using wires. That way, electric current can freely flow throughout the face. Next, the panel’s back sheet is crafted using metal or durable plastic, and this layer acts as a protectant and maximises the solar panel’s lifespan.

Afterward, producers attach a top layer, on the other side, made of tempered glass. The three layers are combined using a metal frame and mounted with a racking system on your rooftop. Manufacturers install a junction box to connect the panels with the inverter with wiring.

Solar Panel FAQs

Which glass is used in solar panels?

Solar panels use tempered glass. In the industry, the component is sometimes called toughened glass.

How many solar panels does it take to power a house?

A three-bedroom household will need about ten solar panels. In the UK, ten 350-watt solar panels can power over 2,645 kWh of energy annually.

Do solar panels work at night?

Solar panels can’t function without a light source. At night, they may work off of streetlights and the moonlight, but it wouldn’t produce as much energy output.

How many elements are in a solar panel?

Solar panels are mainly made of silicon and silver. Manufacturers may use other metals like copper, aluminium, and zinc.

What Are Solar Panels Made Of Summary

What are solar panels made of? In short, solar panels consist of PV cells made of silicon, glass sheets, metal frames, and wires. All these components tie into how a solar panel functions. The PV cells are responsible for absorbing solar radiation and converting it from DC energy to AC.

The glass sheets protect the panels and offer anti-reflective properties to the panel. The metal frames stick all the panels’ layers together.

Meanwhile, the wires function as the electric current messengers and move the electric current to the system’s inverters through the junction box.

 

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Born in North West England, Jack kicked off his career in the insurance arena, dealing with claims for three years. Always up for a challenge, Jack leapt out of his comfort zone and embarked upon 5 years of excitement with the military.

Working for the Ministry of Defence, Jack specialised in counter-terrorism which took him to places such as Dubai, Oman, Iraq, Norway and Bahrain. During this period he worked with various Governments implementing strategic operations to prevent terrorism.

After travelling around various countries Jack increasingly came across various forms of solar from large solar farms to domestic solar panels. From here Jack took a keen interest in all things solar and started reading about the technological capabilities with a view to entering the industry after his career in the Ministry of Defence.

Once home after 5 fruitful years, Jack had 3 months leave in which he immersed himself in a solar crash course and got applying for jobs within the solar sector. He came across ESE Solar, a long-established forward-thinking company whose head office was only a stone’s throw away from him. He picked up the phone to see if there were any vacancies and within a week had a successful interview and obtained a full-time job, starting in the technical team.

Within the first few months, Jack onboarded in various online courses during work and social hours to speed up his knowledge of all things solar. Due to his strong work ethic and thirst for knowledge Jack was promoted to Head of Technical at ESE Solar. He currently leads the team and oversees the product development of new technologies within the company alongside assisting where necessary on their maintenance department.

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