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How Are Solar Panels Made?

Solar panels help us take advantage of untapped solar energy previously thought unreachable. Learn how they’re made.
Solar Panels
8 minutes
Written by:
Joey Cheek
Updated on:
November 11, 2022

Solar panels are what make sustainable energy possible. 

Scientists worldwide have endeavored for decades to acquire renewable energy sources to replace the damaging fossil fuels and nuclear power we rely so heavily upon. Solar power, in particular, is an emerging renewable energy source that is becoming more and more popular in many countries fighting climate change. This is a cheap and effective way to solve a modern problem, and it saves money for American families.

You've probably seen black paneling catching light on the roof of a house on a hot day, or a souvenir shop trinket that moves in sunlight. These are examples of solar power in action. 

The sun is a reliable source of energy that doesn't hurt the environment and is free to use in almost every part of the world. Solar panels can use the sun's rays to make electricity that can power homes and buildings. With enough solar panels, a whole country could be powered by solar energy alone.

Solar panels help us take advantage of untapped solar energy previously thought unreachable. The human race is slowly converting to renewable energy sources and putting less emphasis on nonrenewable sources that harm the environment. 

Current energy sources are polluting and not even remotely sustainable in the sense that they are destroying the planet and that there are simply not enough of them to power the future. Fossil fuels account for over 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which trap the sun's heat in Earth's atmosphere. 

These greenhouse gases cause global warming, which leads to droughts, melting ice caps, habitat destruction, and other problems for the environment. 

Coal power plants emit carbon dioxide and other gases that directly impact people's health, increasing the number of people that suffer from asthma and heart disease. The use of gasoline contributes to the polluted atmosphere. These non-renewable energy sources are being burned at high rates to keep up with the world's growing population, but for how much longer?

Currently, 4.4% of all global energy is generated by the sun, and that number is expected to continue rising as solar power becomes more normalized. In the United States alone, 3.9% of energy comes from solar power. The use of solar power worldwide has steadily increased over the past few years.

The solar power industry is rapidly expanding to meet the growing demand for solutions to the climate crisis. Scientists, people who make solar panels, and people who sell them all work to get more people to use and buy solar energy. China is the leader in solar energy generation, having produced three times the amount of solar-powered megawatts that the United States did in 2021.

What Are Solar Panels?

Solar panels are made of glass or plastic and are used to collect the sun's energy and turn it into electricity. They are composed of lots of photovoltaic cells that are connected by metal. Solar panels are often placed together in groups to ensure optimal energy conversion. 

These panels are environmentally-friendly and the United States government has enacted a tax credit on the purchase of solar panels to encourage their use. Solar panels can be used to heat water, power lights, charge batteries, or just about anything else a regular electrical charge can do.

Solar panels were first invented by Charles Fritts in 1883 with gold and selenium, but they weren't very effective. This invention was only the starting point. 

In 1950, scientists began researching photovoltaic cells and used silicon to produce them. These panels were still not very effective, but the technological advancement inspired the United States government to sponsor more research to investigate solar power as a renewable energy source. 

Solar panel manufacturing began in the 1960s and has taken off since. Decades ago, solar panels were thought to be too expensive for the average family, but with today's modern technology, they are cheaper and easier to produce. 

Researchers are still looking into solar power, and solar panels are always getting better. Solar energy is regarded as one of the cleanest sources of renewable energy.

What Are Solar Panels Made Of?

95% of solar panels are made up of silicon, which is the second most accessible element in the world. Silicon has a stable structure, making it a viable material for semiconductors, and it can be found in common beach sand.

In a solar panel, there are layers of positively and negatively charged silicon. When sunlight hits a solar panel, the energy from its rays is absorbed by the photovoltaic cells, which creates electrical charges. The negative layers in the panel have extra electrons that can move around, while the positive layers in the panel have “holes” that the electrons can move through. 

As the free electrons leave behind holes that are filled by new electrons, they gather at the pole and flow through a conductor as an electrical current. The electricity that is first generated is called direct current electricity, but it can be changed to alternating current electricity through an inverter. 

Direct current electricity is typically used in low-voltage applications, and the energy only flows in one direction. Electricity that uses alternating current has a voltage that changes from positive to negative and back again. The flow of electricity can also change direction in correspondence with the voltage.

This inverter is typically installed at the back of solar panels and is what converts the energy from the sun into energy that can be used in a home. Depending on what type of voltage is needed, inverters can be used on single panels or on a whole set of solar panels.

A mounting system keeps the panels secured to the ground or to a roof. Some mounting systems only hold the panels in place, while others let the panels move with the sun so they can keep getting the most energy possible. 

In the United States, 3.2 million homes are powered by solar electricity. Installing solar panels is a great step in the right direction of protecting the environment and combating climate change as an individual.

The Production of Solar Panels in 5 Steps

Bell Laboratories hosted the first scientists who created a functional photovoltaic silicon cell. Their breakthrough eventually led to the mass production and manufacturing of solar panels.

Solar panel production is an intensive process that requires sophisticated equipment. Solar panel manufacturing is a big business that has been making solar energy more useful since 1954. 

Step 1: Gathering Raw Materials 

Most solar panels start out as tiny grains of sand. That is, the silicon wafers that produce electricity are made of sand. Pure silicon is produced in a furnace at high temperatures from quartz sand. Even though silicon is easy to find, it is expensive and takes a lot of energy to clean it.

Step 2: Forming Ingots

The purified silicon is then collected as solid rock. These rocks are then heated in a cylindrical furnace to form ingots. The shape of the ingot is important, and each atom is meticulously aligned to achieve the proper form. Boron is added at this stage to give the silicon a positive electrical charge. 

Step 3: Wafers

A wire saw is used to cut the “wafers” from the “ingot” that the silicon in the furnace makes. Some saws have multiple wires to cut multiple wafers at once. At this point in the process, the wafers are given an anti-reflective coating made of titanium dioxide and silicon oxide to reduce the risk of valuable sunlight bouncing off of them. This helps the wafers absorb more light and increases their efficiency.

Step 4: Photovoltaic Cells

The silicon wafers are treated. Conductors are attached to the wafers to facilitate the flow of energy. The surface of the wafers is coated in phosphorus at a high temperature, which gives them a negative electrical charge. When the boron and phosphorus are both applied to the wafer, a positive-negative junction is formed, through which is how the panel will function and energy will flow.

Step 5: The Big Picture

The photovoltaic cells are now positively and negatively charged. They have been treated to reduce energy loss and are connected with metal rods. The cells are linked together as a grid to most effectively capture the sun's rays.

A junction box is installed to maintain the connections within the panel. The junction box protects the electrical components of the panel from environmental threats.

The final step in solar panel production is creating a frame. A thin sheet of glass is used to cover the front of the solar panel to protect the cells. The back is also covered to prevent dirt or water from getting inside.

The frame is then glued with ethylene vinyl acetate to hold everything together.

After these steps, the solar panel production process is completed. Each solar panel is tested and cleaned before being shipped out and distributed.

Overall, solar panels are beneficial to the environment and the people inhabiting it. The sun provides us with warmth and light, yes, but now it can provide us with something much more valuable: an internet connection. 

The human race can begin to take advantage of the environments we live in rather than being victims of them by utilizing the sun's energy. As the need for renewable energy sources grows, there will be more and more modern inventions and new ideas.

Solar power is the world's hope for a clean, limitless supply of energy that can be cheaply converted with little environmental repercussions and reduces the effects of greenhouse gases.

Take the SmartSolar.org quiz and learn more about the benefits of installing solar panels.

Joey Cheek

Meet the author:

Joey Cheek

Joey Cheek spent 10 years on the US National Speedskating Team where he competed in two Olympic Games, winning gold, silver, and bronze medals. He attended Princeton before diving into the startup and tech world. In 2011 he launched a livestreaming platform for sports before leading a team of engineers building next-gen news and content apps for Fortune 100 companies. He is the CEO and co-founder of SmartSolar.org, whose mission is to move the earth to cheap, abundant, carbon-free energy.

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