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A photovoltaic (PV) cell, commonly called a solar cell, is a non-mechanical device that converts sunlight directly into electricity. Some PV cells can convert artificial light into electricity.
Sunlight is composed of photons, or particles of solar energy. These photons contain varying amounts of energy that correspond to the different wavelengths of the solar spectrum.
A PV cell is made of semiconductor material. When photons strike a PV cell, they may reflect off the cell, pass through the cell, or be absorbed by the semiconductor material. Only the absorbed photons provide energy to generate electricity. When the semiconductor material absorbs enough sunlight (solar energy), electrons are dislodged from the material's atoms. Special treatment of the material surface during manufacturing makes the front surface of the cell more receptive to the dislodged, or free, electrons so that the electrons naturally migrate to the surface of the cell.
The PV cell is the basic building block of a PV system. Individual cells can vary in size from about 0.5 inches to about 4 inches across. However, one cell only produces 1 or 2 Watts, which is only enough electricity for small uses, such as for powering calculators or wristwatches.
PV cells are electrically connected in a packaged, weather-tight PV module or panel. PV modules vary in size and in the amount of electricity they can produce. PV module electricity generating capacity increases with the number of cells in the module or in the surface area of the module.