Solar cells, also called photovoltaic (PV) cells, convert sunlight into electricity. This process was first discovered in 1954, when scientists at Bell Telephone discovered that silicon** created an electric charge when exposed to sunlight.
Traditional solar cells are made from silicon, are usually flat-plate, and generally are the most efficient. Second-generation solar cells are called thin-film solar cells because they are made from amorphous silicon or nonsilicon materials such as cadmium telluride. Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. Because of their flexibility, thin film solar cells can double as rooftop shingles and tiles, building facades, or the glazing for skylights.
Third-generation solar cells are being made from a variety of new materials besides silicon, including solar inks using conventional printing press technologies, solar dyes, and conductive plastics. Some new solar cells use plastic lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a very small piece of high efficiency PV material. The PV material is more expensive, but because so little is needed, these systems are becoming cost effective for use by utilities and industry. However, because the lenses must be pointed at the sun, the use of concentrating collectors is limited to the sunniest parts of the country.
Amazingly this very technology is now readily available to the average homeowner, in the form of solar panels, or outdoor solar lighting products.
**Next to Oxygen (46.1%), Silicon (28.2%) is the most abundant material in the earth's crust. The next closest is Aluminium (8.23%).