Technology

A Brief History On The Development Of Solar Power

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The state of the renewable and alternative sources of energy

Some time ago, I watched a show in which the characters had to learn to live and thrive after all the power in the world had vanished. It made me wonder how we as a people would react if that ever happened. It also drove home the point that human beings take too much for granted, including where they get power.

When most people think of power, they don’t often look up. Humanity has relied on the resources of the earth for their power needs, which is mostly made up of fossil fuels. While there are alternative ways to produce energy, most of the technology involved in doing so is not very highly developed.

Solar power in the yesteryear

The earliest documented use of solar power dates to the early 7th century BC. The same way some children use a magnifying glass to torture insects, magnifying glasses were used to ignite fires. Many ancient civilizations like the Greeks, Chinese and Romans made use of “burning mirrors” to light torches for ceremonial purposes.

Sunlight reflected from mirrors was also used to burn enemy ships using the “heat ray”. Archimedes is credited with the invention, which using multiple mirrors to direct sunlight at the enemy ships, set them on fire.

Many roman bathhouses used glass panes to direct sunlight to one place and heat the water up. These bathhouses were located in the part of the building that received the most sunlight.

The history of solar power’s development

The history of solar power is a unique and interesting one. The very first device ever built to capture the energy of the sun was invented in the year 1767 by Horace de Saussure and was a type of solar oven. It was used for cooking purposes on long voyages. Modern day solar ovens are built on the same concept, they use sunlight to prepare meals. They are useful in areas where electricity is inaccessible.

In 1839, a French scientist, Edmund Becquerel, made a revolutionary discovery. At the tender age of 19, he discovered what is known as the Photovoltaic Effect. He found that certain materials, when exposed to light, creates a voltage difference. This phenomenon was called the photovoltaic effect. Edmund pioneered modern solar power.

Solar power used in motor and steam engines

In the 1860s Auguste Mouchout moved the science of solar energy forward. He gained funding from the French Monarchy for his work. He was able to develop a motor that ran on solar energy and a steam engine that could be used to make ice which was truly an amazing feat for his time.

The next significant achievement in the history of solar energy came in the year 1873 when the photovoltaic effect was observed in an element called Selenium.  William Grylls Adams and his student Richard Evans Day found they could create an electrical current in Selenium when connecting two electrodes to the plate. This cemented the possibility of utilizing light directly as a source for electricity

The development of storing solar energy

Around 1904 American Henry Willsie was able to store energy collected via solar power during the day to be used at night. In the year 1908, a man named William J. Baileys designed and built a copper-based solar collector. His designs are still emulated in modern-day technology, although many improvements have been made along the way.

Although researchers had observed this phenomenon it remained a perplexing mystery until almost a decade later, Albert Einstein published his paper on the photoelectric effect. He explained that when metals are subjected to light, electrons in the outermost shell of their atoms, get “knocked out” and can move about freely. And so, an electric current is created.

Years after that, Selenium was the primary material used for creating photoelectricity – electricity generated from light. Until 1918, when Jan Czochralski devised a method to grow Silicon crystals. Today’s solar cells are silicon-based.

Eight years after this discovery, solar cells were designed for the first time. Charles Fritts used selenium wafers in his design. Charles Fritts then carried this research forward in 1998 where he designed a way to use selenium wafers (thin slices) to generate electricity. Adams also developed a way to harness mirrors to power a steam engine which is still in use today.

All these discoveries laid the foundation for the first actual solar cell – a cell that converted sunlight directly into electricity. Its development was attributed to several scientists at Bell Labs. David Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson created the first viable commercial solar cell. Their “solar cell” converted sunlight directly into electrical power. Their designs have been improved on with the efficiency and life span of solar cells continuing to improve. Leading to the creation of “solar cells” with efficiency range between 4 and 11 percent. This innovation marked the birth of photovoltaic cells.

Commercial Usage

Although solar cells were available for consumers, it proved difficult to market because this nascent technology was pricey. However, the cost was lowered in decades to follow. At the beginning of the space race, the US and Soviet space agencies used solar cells for powering their satellites.

In the 70s, the oil and resources company, Exxon, helped cut down the cost of solar cells by an astonishing 80%. This drop in operating costs led to the proliferation of solar-powered technology. The next two decades saw a steep rise in solar-powered alternatives in the form of solar-powered telecommunication towers, solar-powered homes, and remote towns in desserts where electricity is inaccessible otherwise.

The development of solar power will continue to expand as the demand for clean energy sources continues to rise. Today we have solar powered vehicles, aircraft, cities, and even entire states! With growing concerns over greenhouse gases, disruptions in gas and oil supplies and the need for remote access to power, solar energy continues to gain popularity and momentum.

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