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Silicon Solar Cells: A Comprehensive Guide

Silicon solar cells have been at the forefront of the solar energy industry for decades, dominating over 90% of the current solar cell market. These solar cells, often classified as first-generation panels, initially gained traction in the 1950s and are still widely used today.

Although silicon solar cells are known for their efficiency, typically converting up to 22% of solar energy into electricity, further developments in the industry are necessary to continually improve solar cell efficiency. In recent years, UK-based companies, such as Oxford PV, have been making significant progress in developing new technologies, like perovskite-on-silicon solar cells, to increase the efficiency and sustainability of this renewable energy source.

History of Silicon Solar Cells in the UK

Despite silicon solar cells being initially developed by Bell Laboratories in 1954, the UK has a significant history in the growth and development of this technology. This evolution of silicon solar cells in the UK can be divided into various key moments.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, most solar cell use was limited to space applications, such as the Telstar communication satellite, which used silicon solar cells for power. During this period, terrestrial installations were rare. Silicon solar cells gradually started being used on Earth, with the UK playing a major role in the research and development of this technology.

By the 1980s, the UK government began investing in photovoltaic (PV) research, which would eventually lead to commercial production of silicon solar cells in the country. The UK's focus on scientific research and technical expertise promoted the growth and adoption of PV technology not only in the country but also worldwide. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, UK-based companies, such as BP Solar and Pilkington Solar International, materialised as global players in the solar market, entering into partnerships with leading global solar technology manufacturers.

During these years, the UK's domestic solar photovoltaic capacity started to grow steadily. The industry was further boosted by the introduction of the UK's feed-in-tariff scheme in 2010. This scheme incentivised the installation of solar panels on domestic roofs, leading to a rapid deployment of PV technology across the country.

Despite some fluctuations in market growth due to changing government policies, the UK has become one of Europe's leading solar energy producers, thanks to its commitment to renewable energy and efforts to develop and maintain its silicon solar cell technology infrastructure.

Types of Silicon Solar Cells

Silicon solar cells are the most widely used photovoltaic technology around the world. There are three main types of silicon solar cells: monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, and amorphous silicon. Each type has its own characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.

Monocrystalline Silicon

Monocrystalline solar cells, also known as single crystalline cells, have a dark black colour and are made from very pure silicon. These cells are the most efficient when it comes to converting sunlight into electricity, primarily due to their high purity.

One drawback of monocrystalline silicon solar cells is their higher production cost compared to other types of solar cells. However, since they offer the highest efficiency, they require less space for installation, making them a popular choice for residential solar power systems.

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    Polycrystalline Silicon

    Polycrystalline silicon solar cells, made up of multiple silicon crystals, have a blueish hue compared to their monocrystalline counterparts. These cells are less efficient than monocrystalline cells, but they are less expensive to produce, resulting in a lower initial investment. The trade-off is that polycrystalline solar panels typically require more space for installation due to their lower efficiency rate.

    Despite their lower efficiency, polycrystalline cells are still widely used in large-scale solar power projects, such as solar farms and commercial installations, where the cost and space requirements aren't as restrictive.

    Amorphous Silicon

    Amorphous silicon solar cells are a type of thin-film solar cell which uses a non-crystalline form of silicon. These cells are flexible, lightweight, and can be used on surfaces with varying curvatures. However, their efficiency is generally lower compared to monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar cells.

    Due to their flexibility, amorphous silicon solar cells have found applications in portable and wearable devices, as well as building-integrated photovoltaic systems (BIPV), where they can be integrated into windows or building facades. Despite their lower efficiency, they offer unique advantages in specific use cases.

    Manufacturing Process

    The manufacturing process of silicon solar cells starts with the production of high-purity silicon. This is achieved through the carbothermic reduction of silicates in an electric arc furnace, where large amounts of electrical energy are used to break the silicon-oxygen bond in SiO2 via an endothermic reaction with carbon.

    In order to create the solar cells, the purified silicon is then made into wafers. These wafers are produced using one of several methods, such as the heat exchange method (HEM), electro-magneto casting (EMC), or the more common directional solidification system (DSS). Once the wafers are formed, they are sliced into thin layers and doped with impurities like boron or phosphorus to create a semiconductor material, which forms the basis of the photovoltaic cell.

    The next step in the process is to create the solar cell's structure. This is typically achieved by:

    1. Applying an anti-reflective coating to the front surface of the wafer
    2. Printing metallic contacts, such as a silver paste, onto the front and back surfaces of the wafer, creating electrodes
    3. Firing the wafers in a furnace to cure the metal contacts

    Once the solar cells are completed, they are then assembled into solar panels. This involves soldering the cells together, connecting them with bus wire, and encapsulating them in a protective layer, such as a glass sheet or plastic film. Finally, the panels are mounted onto a metal frame with a standard 12V wire, making them ready for installation and use.

    Efficiency and Performance

    Silicon solar cells have been the dominant choice for solar power generation for decades. Their performance has steadily improved, driven by innovations and advancements within the industry. In the United Kingdom, a significant breakthrough in solar technology has pushed the efficiency of silicon solar cells to new heights.

    Typically, silicon solar cells have been able to convert up to about 22% of the available solar energy into electricity. However, recent research from around the world has led to silicon solar cells surpassing this efficiency mark. For example, Oxford PV's perovskite-on-silicon solar cell has pushed the boundaries of performance even further.

    Alongside these improvements, several research initiatives have been exploring the upper limit of silicon solar cell efficiency. Investigations have found that by optimizing the cell construction and exploiting the innovative PERL cell technology, the energy conversion efficiency in the lab reached a record value of 25%. This performance is potentially achievable in commercial applications, thanks to advancements in manufacturing and technology adoption.

    Moreover, in thin-film solar cells, numerical simulations show the possibility of achieving a power conversion efficiency of 31%. These flexible solar cells, consisting of crystalline silicon, could offer considerable advantages in specific applications, such as integration with building materials or incorporation in a wider range of products.

    As solar power becomes more efficient, the potential impact on the energy industry is significant. Increased efficiency translates into better energy production, smaller system sizes, and enhanced cost-effectiveness for both commercial and residential applications of solar technology.

    Market Trends and Key Providers

    The UK solar power market has witnessed notable growth in recent years, with a shift towards renewable energy sources and sustainable technologies. Silicon solar cells, in particular, have experienced continuous advancement and an increasing presence in the overall energy mix. The market trends demonstrate a growing demand for solar power solutions, driven by a global push for cleaner and greener energy sources.

    Among the key providers in the UK solar power market, companies such as Electricite de France SA, Ecotricity Group Ltd, Renewable Energy Systems Ltd, Lightsource BP Renewable Energy Investments Limited, and Hive Energy stand out due to their extensive experience and solar project portfolios. These companies contribute significantly to the expanding solar infrastructure in the United Kingdom.

    Cost reductions for solar photovoltaic (PV) installations have also played a crucial role in the market's growth. As per Statista, the average installation cost of small-scale PV systems in the UK fell consistently between April 2016 and March 2022.

    In addition to cost reductions, numerous technological advancements have led to greater efficiency in solar cell performance. The following briefly highlights the main types of silicon solar cells dominating the UK solar power market:

    • Monocrystalline Silicon Solar Cells
    • Polycrystalline Silicon Solar Cells
    • Thin-Film Silicon Solar Cells

    With more efficient solar panels becoming available at affordable prices, consumers are increasingly adopting solar installations for their homes, businesses, and industrial establishments, expanding the opportunities in the UK solar power market further.

    Government Policies and Incentives

    The UK government has implemented various policies and incentives to support the growth of solar PV technology. One such initiative is the re-establishment of 'Pot 1' technologies, including onshore wind and solar PV, for the Contracts for Difference (CfD) allocation round in 2021. This has fostered competitiveness among solar PV projects.

    As part of the effort to promote solar power in mainstream home improvements, the government has provided several grants and incentives. Households with rooftop solar panels could save over £1,000 in installation costs and £300 annually in energy expenses. Moreover, VAT has been reduced to 0% for solar panel installations until March 2027, after which it will return to 5%.

    Unfortunately, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme launched in 2014, closed for new applications on 31 March 2022. The RHI aimed to promote renewable heat technologies such as solar thermal systems, biomass boilers, and heat pumps through financial incentives.

    In addition to incentives, the government has supported research and development in the solar industry. For instance, Innovate UK funded Oxford Photovoltaics, a company that set a record for efficiency in converting sunlight to power using perovskite materials overlaid on traditional silicon-based solar cells. This backing has contributed to advances in solar cell technology, paving the way for an 'all-electric future.'

    Costs and Financial Benefits

    Investing in silicon solar cells for your home can provide both cost savings and potential earnings. The average cost of a solar panel system in the UK typically ranges between £5,000 and £8,000, with the median cost being around £6,000 for supply and installation. Despite the initial investment, these solar panels can provide more than half of a family's energy needs, considerably reducing their energy bills.

    When equipped with solar panels, a household can typically cut its electricity bill by around 46%. This translates into annual savings between £320 and £750 for most homes, with an average three-bedroom residence saving approximately £449 per year. These figures are based on the assumption that households will only use half of the solar power generated by their panels.

    In addition to direct energy bill savings, solar panels can also generate income through the surplus electricity they produce. When a solar panel system generates more electricity than a household consumes, the excess energy can be exported back to the national grid. This process allows homeowners to earn extra income from their solar installations.

    It is important to note that the actual financial benefits of solar panels can vary depending on several factors such as the size of the solar panel system, the location of the installation, and the amount of sunlight received by the panels. Furthermore, the efficiency of the silicon solar cells and the overall costs of the system are subject to continuous improvement and reductions as technology advances.

    Environmental Impact

    As the adoption of silicon solar cells increases across the UK, understanding their environmental impact becomes crucial. Silicon solar cells offer an eco-friendly approach to energy production; however, they also come with several environmental considerations during their production and end-of-life stages.

    One of the positive aspects of silicon solar cells is their ability to produce clean energy with a lower carbon footprint compared to fossil fuels. Moreover, tandem solar cells, combining III-V/silicon photovoltaics, promise higher conversion efficiencies, requiring less material to generate electricity, ultimately reducing their climate change impact by up to 24%.

    On the other hand, the manufacturing process for silicon solar cells involves the use of potentially hazardous chemicals, posing health risks to workers involved in the production process. Additionally, solar panel installations can sometimes compete with agricultural land usage and cause soil erosion.

    The disposal of solar panels at the end of their useful life is another environmental concern. Electronic waste is an escalating issue worldwide, and the UK needs to ensure proper management and recycling schemes to mitigate the negative effects of solar panel disposal.

    To minimise the overall environmental impact of silicon solar cells, researchers are continually developing new technologies and manufacturing methods. Implementing solutions, such as perovskite-on-silicon modules, can reduce the environmental impact by 6% to 18% over a tandem module's 25-year lifetime.

    Future Prospects and Innovations

    In the coming years, silicon solar cells are expected to see a decrease in cost and an increase in large-scale installations. This trend has the potential to boost solar power production in the United Kingdom by at least 700% by 2050. With the UK adding 730MW of solar generation capacity in 2021, the future indeed looks bright for the country's solar industry.

    A major innovation making its way to the solar industry is the use of perovskite material on traditional silicon-based solar cells. This technological breakthrough aims to increase electricity output and achieve efficiency levels that could exceed 30%. Comparatively, typical silicon solar cells currently convert about 20 to 22% of the available solar energy into electricity.

    Oxford PV, a leading company in the perovskite-on-silicon solar cell field, has achieved a world record in efficiency. In June 2018, their solar cell reached 28% efficiency, demonstrating the potential of this revolutionary approach to improve solar energy capture and conversion.

    Alongside enhancing efficiency, the integration of perovskite into silicon solar cells signifies the development of more sustainable and cost-effective photovoltaic solutions. As the UK solar industry continues to expand and innovate, the nation progresses closer to achieving its climate goals and reducing dependency on non-renewable sources.


    In the realm of solar energy, silicon solar cells have consistently maintained a prominent position, particularly in the UK. The ongoing advancements in solar technology have allowed silicon solar cells to reach efficiency levels of up to 22%, thus contributing positively to the global movement towards renewable energy sources.

    The solar cell technology has experienced substantial growth, transforming from its first generation based on monocrystalline or multicrystalline silicon cells to present-day innovations with enhanced efficiency. Today, over 90% of the worldwide solar cell market is supported by silicon-based solar cells.

    One of the most promising developments in solar technology that has emerged in the UK is the integration of perovskite materials with traditional silicon-based solar cells. This innovative approach has the potential to increase electricity output and achieve efficiency surpassing 30%.

    In summary, silicon solar cells continue to play a vital role in the UK's solar energy landscape. With ongoing research and development, these solar cells are consistently evolving, ensuring their continued relevance in the pursuit of cleaner, greener, and more efficient energy sources.

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    Mark McShane
    Content Writer
    Mark McShane is a seasoned professional in the solar industry and the owner of Skills Training Group, a leading provider of solar training and education. With years of experience in the field, Mark has developed a deep understanding of the latest trends, technologies and best practices in the industry. His expertise and passion for solar energy have helped countless professionals develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the fast-growing field of solar energy. Whether you’re an aspiring solar professional or an experienced industry veteran, Mark is an excellent resource for anyone looking to enhance their skills and knowledge of the solar industry.
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