Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Solar cells were first used in a prominent application when they were proposed and flown on the Vanguard satellite in 1958, as an alternative power source to the primary batterypower source. By adding cells to the outside of the body, the mission time could be extended with no major changes to the spacecraft or its power systems. In 1959 the United States launched Explorer 6, featuring large wing-shaped solar arrays, which became a common feature in satellites. These arrays consisted of 9600 Hoffman solar cells.
By the 1960s, solar cells were (and still are) the main power source for most Earth orbiting satellites and a number of probes into the solar system (for example: GOAL ZERO YETI 400 SOLAR GENERATOR KIT ), since they offered the best power-to-weight ratio. However, this success was possible because in the space application, power system costs could be high, because space users had few other power options, and were willing to pay for the best possible cells. The space power market drove the development of higher efficiencies in solar cells up until the National Science Foundation "Research Applied to National Needs" program began to push development of solar cells for terrestrial applications.
In the early 1990s the technology used for space solar cells diverged from the silicon technology used for terrestrial panels, with the spacecraft application shifting to gallium arsenide-based III-V semiconductor materials, which then evolved into the modern III-V multijunction photovoltaic cell used on spacecraft.
Improvements were gradual over the 1960s. This was also the reason that costs remained high, because space users were willing to pay for the best possible cells, leaving no reason to invest in lower-cost, less-efficient solutions. The price was determined largely by the semiconductor industry; their move to integrated circuits in the 1960s led to the availability of larger boules at lower relative prices. As their price fell, the price of the resulting cells did as well. These effects lowered 1971 cell costs to some $100 per watt.
In late 1969 Elliot Berman joined Exxon's task force which was looking for projects 30 years in the future and in April 1973 he founded Solar Power Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon at that time. The group had concluded that electrical power would be much more expensive by 2000, and felt that this increase in price would make alternative energy sources more attractive. He conducted a market study and concluded that a price per watt of about $20/watt would create significant demand. The team eliminated the steps of polishing the wafers and coating them with an anti-reflective layer, relying on the rough-sawn wafer surface. The team also replaced the expensive materials and hand wiring used in space applications with a printed circuit board on the back, acrylic plastic on the front, and silicone glue between the two, "potting" the cells. Solar cells could be made using cast-off material from the electronics market. By 1973 they announced a product, and SPC convinced Tideland Signal to use its panels to power navigational buoys, initially for the U.S. Coast Guard.