What Parts & Materials are Used to Make Solar Cells?
Before digging too deep into plastic solar panels and cells, it's important to understand the components that make up a standard panel:
- Silicon solar cells (photovoltaic element)
- Glass casing sheet
- Metal frame
- Standard 12V wire and bus wire
- Acrylic/Plexiglass sheet
Silicon is the most commonly used material for solar cells because of the strong photovoltaic effect it produces (meaning it speeds up sunlight's electrons within the cell to create an electrical current). The panels themselves will generally have one of two silicon structures: monocrystalline or polycrystalline. Monocrystalline means a single crystal of silicon is used. It's the most efficient structure but can be the most expensive. Polycrystalline means multiple silicon crystals are used. These structures are not quite as efficient as monocrystalline, but they're generally more cost-effective and produce less silicon waste during the manufacturing process.
By now you're probably wondering where exactly plastic comes into play. Up until recently, plastics have played a secondary role in solar panel production. For example, solar panel plastic sheets or films can be used to help reduce internal humidity or protect the glass and silicon panels underneath from the environment. Mainly, though, plastic is used for connecting components, including thrust washers, electrical insulators, pipes, valves and other fittings.
Thanks to modern developments, however, plastic solar cells are being developed that can serve as the photovoltaic material on their own, rather than using silicon and glass elements. This will help make solar panels, and solar-based energy, even more affordable, durable and accessible than ever before.
Which Plastics are Used in Solar Panels?
In terms of a photovoltaic plastic solar panel, a unique blend of organic polymers and other small molecules has been designed to absorb light and transport it through the cell in order to produce electricity. These blends are still in the experimental phase, so they aren't widely used in standard solar energy arrays yet. But, in the not-so-distant future, they may replace the solar panel glass or plastic sheeting we're familiar with.
As we mentioned above, however, plastic is used for a wide variety of other solar panel components. The most common kinds of plastics used for solar panels include:
- Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS): A sturdy plastic used for solar panel braces and attachments. Ex: Attaching a solar panel to your RV.
- Acrylic/Plexiglass: Used for protective and insulating films to make panels more durable and reduce internal humidity.
- Polycarbonate: Used as a glazing to protect glass and other fragile elements from impact. Can also be used for sturdy components like rotational bushings and bearings.
- Polypropylene: Often used as film to protect glass panels or as a base material for plastic solar cells.