Just as plants receive energy from the sun and use it to produce glucose, a photovoltaic cell receive energy from the sun and generates an electrical current. The working principle is based on the PN junction, which will be revisited here.
Silicon can be subdivided into several discrete energy levels called “bands”. The major bands of concern are the valence and conduction bands. The bottom bands are fully occupied and don’t change.
For silicon, the bandgap energy is 1.1eV. For an intrinsic semiconductor, the Fermi level is directly between the conduction and valence band. This is because there is an equal number of holes in the valence band as electrons in the conduction band. This means the probability of occupation of energy levels in both bands are equal. The Fermi level rises in the case of an n-type semiconuctor (doped with Phosphorous) and declines towards the valence band in a p-type (doped with Boron).
The following illustrates an energy band diagram for a semiconductor with no bias across it. Photodiodes (light sensors) operate in this manner.
The Fermi energy is shown to be constant. On the far right hand side away from the depletion region, the PN junction appears to be only P-type (hence the low Fermi level with respect to the conduction band). Likewise, on the left the Fermi level is high with respect to the conduction band. The slope of the junction is proportional to the electric field. A strong electric field in the depletion region makes it harder for holes and electrons to move away from the region. When a forward bias is applied, the barrier decreases and current begins to flow (assuming the applied voltage is higher than the turn on voltage of 0.7V). Current flows whenever recombination occurs. This is because every time an electron recombines on the P side, an electron is pushed out of the N side and beings to flow in an external circuit. The device wants to stay in equilibrium and balance out. This is why solar cells (as opposed to photodiodes) are designed to operate in a forward bias mode.
The sunlight produces solar energy in the frequency bands of Ultraviolet, infrared and visible light. In order to harness this energy, silicon is employed (made from sand and carbon). Silicon wafers are employed in solar cells. The top layer of the silicon is a very thin layer doped with phosphorous (n-type). The bottom is doped with P-type (doped with Boron). This forms the familiar PN junction. The top layer has thin metal strips and the bottom is conductive as well (usually aluminum). Only frequencies around the visible light spectrum are absorbed into the middle region of the solar cell. The photon energy from the sun knocks electrons loose in the depletion region which causes a current to flow. The output power of a single solar cell is only a few watts. To increase power, solar cells are wired in series and parallel to increase the voltage and current. Because the output of the solar cells is DC, the output is run through an inverter, a high power oscillator that converts the DC current to an 240V AC current compatible with household appliances.