Chapter 3: Scientists and satellites

To many, one of PV’s most appealing characteristics is its intrinsic connection to cutting edge scientific concepts—such as the structure of atoms, the characteristics of light, and photons’ interactions with electrons.  That connection to science makes it similar to nuclear power, but without the need for scale, connection to weapons, and waste.  The activity in solar PV was closely tied to basic science and fundamental understanding, barely with any consideration at all about its potential applications.  Progress in this early period was extremely slow.  It took 115 years from Becquerel’s discovery of the photoelectric effect in 1839 until Bell Labs demonstration of the first efficient solar cell in 1954.  For the first half of that period the early tinkerers were trying to observe what they were seeing, to replicate it, and to enhance it.   None made any serious progress in trying to understand it until the 1890s.  ​

Patents Leading to the First PV Cell

Philip Lenard made the first steps in developing this understanding but it was the giant of twentieth century science, Albert Einstein who provided a full explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1921.  Einstein’s work explained the phenomenon which has been observed for more than sixty years.  He described light as packets of waves, or photons, which release electrons in a photosensitive material when those photons exceed a threshold energy corresponding to a material’s band-gap.  That understanding opened a vein for other scientists such as Millikan and led to more systematic development of the technology in the 1930s first by Siemens and later by Bell Labs.   

The first breakthroughs in developing a practical solar cell took place at an office park in Murray Hill, New Jersey.  Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson tried a wide array of configurations to reach their goal of 6% efficiency. Each time they hit a wall and could eek out no further efficiency gains, Fuller was able to produce what solar history expert John Perlin calls “the sauce,” higher purity silicon, more uniform doping, and better junctions .  Morton Prince was brought on in February 1954 to optimize the device and make it reliable enough for a demonstration.  In March, they reached their efficiency goal.  On April 25, 1954, Bell Labs held a press conference announcing the first solar battery, and showing it using room light to power a miniature Ferris wheel.  Bell’s vision was grandiose and they promoted the invention in national magazine advertisements.  Expectations were high and the announcement got a front-page article in the New York Times. 

“It may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams—the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”   

Bell Labs breakthrough in 1954 launched the PV industry and Sputnik in 1957 spurred US entry into the space race.  The most enthusiastic early adopter was the US Defense department for its space program in the 1950s and 60s.  The satellite market was a tremendous boost for the solar industry and firms entered the industry to meet the demand.  The first mover, National Fabricated Products (NFP) in Chicago bought the licensing rights to the Bell solar patent from Western Electric and began shipping the first commercial solar cell, the S-400, in June 1955.  Hoffman Electronics, founded in California by Les Hoffman to make televisions, bought NFP in 1956 and targeted the cells for telecom repeater stations.  Hoffman had experience producing electronic equipment for the military and had developed a reputation with them for reliability. 

In 1956 Hoffman hired Morton Prince who had optimized the Bell Labs cell in the lead up to the 1954 demonstration.  Hoffman scientists, led by Prince as director of R&D, improved the efficiency of these early commercial cells, for example introducing grid-type electrical contacts, and produced the six cells that were used on Vanguard-1.  That success led to orders of thousands of cells and by the end of the 1950s Hoffman began marketing a solar powered radio, the first consumer product using solar cells. 

The other early adopter were international oil companies that used PV to light offshore oil rigs.  An array of niche markets emerged albeit all of modest size. By the early 1970s solar had been established as a reliable technology and was given consideration for a much bigger role once the first oil crisis hit in 1973. 

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© 2019 Greg Nemet