Solar Cells Explained (EE Tip #104)

All solar cells are made from at least two different materials, often in the form of two thin, adjacent layers. One of the materials must act as an electron donor under illumination, while the other material must act as an electron acceptor. If there is some sort of electron barrier between the two materials, the result is an electrical potential. If each of these materials is now provided with an electrode made from an electrically conductive material and the two electrodes are connected to an external load, the electrons will follow this path.

Source: Jens Nickels, Elektor, 070798-I, 6/2009

Source: Jens Nickels, Elektor, 070798-I, 6/2009

The most commonly used solar cells are made from thin wafers of polycrystalline silicon (polycrystalline cells have a typical “frosty” appearance after sawing and polishing). The silicon is very pure, but it contains an extremely small amount of boron as a dopant (an intentionally introduced impurity), and it has a thin surface layer doped with phosphorus. This creates a PN junction in the cell, exactly the same as in a diode. When the cell is exposed to light, electrons are released and holes (positive charge carriers) are generated. The holes can recombine with the electrons. The charge carriers are kept apart by the electrical field of the PN junction, which partially prevents the direct recombination of electrons and holes.

The electrical potential between the electrodes on the top and bottom of the cell is approximately 0.6 V. The maximum current (short-circuit current) is proportional to the surface area of the cell, the impinging light energy, and the efficiency. Higher voltages and currents are obtained by connecting cells in series to form strings and connecting these strings of cells in parallel to form modules.

The maximum efficiency achieved by polycrystalline cells is 17%, while monocrystalline cells can achieve up to 22%, although the overall efficiency is lower if the total module area is taken into account. On a sunny day in central Europe, the available solar energy is approximately 1000 W/m2, and around 150 W/m2 of this can be converted into electrical energy with currently available solar cells.

Source: Jens Nickels, Elektor, 070798-I, 6/2009

Source: Jens Nickels, Elektor, 070798-I, 6/2009

Cells made from selenium, gallium arsenide, or other compounds can achieve even higher efficiency, but they are more expensive and are only used in special applications, such as space travel. There are also other approaches that are aimed primarily at reducing costs instead of increasing efficiency. The objective of such approaches is to considerably reduce the amount of pure silicon that has to be used or eliminate its use entirely. One example is thin-film solar cells made from amorphous silicon, which have an efficiency of 8 to 10% and a good price/performance ratio. The silicon can be applied to a glass sheet or plastic film in the form of a thin layer. This thin-film technology is quite suitable for the production of robust, flexible modules, such as the examples described in this article.

Battery Charging

From an electrical viewpoint, an ideal solar cell consists of a pure current source in parallel with a diode (the outlined components in the accompanying schematic diagram). When the solar cell is illuminated, the typical U/I characteristic of the diode shifts downward (see the drawing, which also shows the opencircuit voltage UOC and the short-circuit current ISC). The panel supplies maximum power when the load corresponds to the points marked “MPP” (maximum power point) in the drawing. The power rating of a cell or panel specified by the manufacturer usually refers to operation at the MPP with a light intensity of 100,000 lux and a temperature of 25°C. The power decreases by approximately 0.2 to 0.5 %/°C as the temperature increases.

A battery can be charged directly from a panel without any problems if the open-circuit voltage of the panel is higher than the nominal voltage of the battery. No voltage divider is necessary, even if the battery voltage is only 3 V and the nominal voltage of the solar panel is 12 V. This is because a solar cell always acts as a current source instead of a voltage source.

If the battery is connected directly to the solar panel, a small leakage current will flow through the solar panel when it is not illuminated. The can be prevented by adding a blocking diode to the circuit (see the schematic). Many portable solar modules have a built-in blocking diode (check the manufacturer’s specifications).

This simple arrangement is adequate if the maximum current from the solar panel is less than the maximum allowable overcharging current of the battery. NiMH cells can be overcharged for up to 100 hours if the charging current (in A) is less than one-tenth of their rated capacity in Ah. This means that a panel with a rated current of 2 A can be connected directly to a 20-Ah battery without any problems. However, under these conditions the battery must be fully discharged by a load from time to time.

Practical Matters

When positioning a solar panel, you should ensure that no part of the panel is in the shade, as otherwise the voltage will decrease markedly, with a good chance that no current will flow into the connected battery.

Most modules have integrated bypass diodes connected in reverse parallel with the solar cells. These diodes prevent reverse polarization of any cells that are not exposed to sunlight, so the current from the other cells flows through the diodes, which can cause overheating and damage to the cells. To reduce costs, it is common practice to fit only one diode to a group of cells instead of providing a separate diode for each cell.

—Jens Nickels, Elektor, 070798-I, 6/2009

Multi-Tasking Robot Platform

Fisnar F9960N

Fisnar F9960N

The F9960N multitasking robot is designed to dispense applications including miniature SMT circuit boards, large PCBs, and finished assemblies. The robot’s dispensing and coating system can be integrated within a conveyor-dependent inline manufacturing environment or installed as a stand-alone module.

The enclosed environment provides access for fume extraction systems, which creates a safeguard from potentially hazardous substances. Access to the working area is through a security door, which is locked while in operation but accessible during programming.

The robot includes a 178-mm touchscreen display that enables you to program a dispense path with unique characteristics (e.g., continuous path and point-to-point routing).

Contact Fisnar for pricing.

Fisnar, Inc.

Voltage Regulator Protection (EE Tip #103)

In many cases, the load connected to a voltage regulator is not returned to ground. It goes to an even lower voltage or perhaps even the negative power supply voltage. (Here we make the assumption of using positive voltages, when using voltage regulators with negative output voltages the reverse is true.)

Op-amps and level-shifters come to mind. In such cases, a diode (1N4001 or equivalent) connected across the output of the regulator IC usually provides sufficient protection (see Figure 1).

Source:Ton Giesberts, Elektor, 080943-I, 4/2009

Source:Ton Giesberts, Elektor, 080943-I, 4/2009

Polarity inversions which could occur, for example, during power on or during a short circuit could prove fatal for the regulator IC, but such a diode prevents the output of the IC going lower than ground (well, minus 0.7 V, to be accurate).

A short-circuit proof voltage regulator (such as the 78xx series) will survive such a situation without any problems. It is also possible for the input voltage of a voltage regulator to drop quicker than the output voltage—for example, when there is a protection circuit that shorts the input power supply voltage as a result of an overvoltage at the output.

If the output voltage of the regulator is more than 7 V higher than the input voltage, the emitter-base junction of the internal power transistor can break down and cause the transistor to fail.

You can use a shunt diode to prevent this condition (see Figure 2). This ensures that any higher voltage at the output of the regulator is shorted to the input.

—Ton Giesberts, Elektor, 080943-I, 4/2009

William McNamara Wins the CC Code Challenge (Week 16)

We have a winner of last week’s CC Weekly Code Challenge, sponsored by IAR Systems! We posted a code snippet with an error and challenged the engineering community to find the mistake!

Congratulations to William McNamara of The Colony, Texas, USA for winning the CC Weekly Code Challenge for Week 16! William will receive a CC T-Shirt and one year digital subscription/renewal.

William’s correct answer was randomly selected from the pool of responses that correctly identified an error in the code. William answered:

Line 5: the “do” needs to be on a separate line or have a semicolon in front of it.


You can see the complete list of weekly winners and code challenges here.

What is the CC Weekly Code Challenge?
Each week, Circuit Cellar’s technical editors purposely insert an error in a snippet of code. It could be a semantic error, a syntax error, a design error, a spelling error, or another bug the editors slip in. You are challenged to find the error.Once the submission deadline passes, Circuit Cellar will randomly select one winner from the group of respondents who submit the correct answer.

Inspired? Want to try this week’s challenge? Get started!

Submission Deadline: The deadline for each week’s challenge is Sunday, 12 PM EST. Refer to the Rules, Terms & Conditions for information about eligibility and prizes.

Simple Guitar Transmitter (EE Tip #102)

You need a guitar amplifier to play an electric guitar. The guitar must be connected with a cable to the amplifier, which you might consider an inconvenience. Most guitar amplifiers operate off the AC power line. An electric guitar fitted with a small transmitter offers several advantages. You can make the guitar audible via an FM tuner/amplifier, for example. Both the connecting cable and amplifier are then unnecessary. With a portable FM broadcast radio or, if desired, a boombox, you can play in the street or in subway.

Source: Elektor 3/2009

Source: Elektor 3/2009

stations (like Billy Bragg). In that case, everything is battery-powered and independent of a fixed power point. (You might need a permit, though.)

Designing a transmitter to do this is not necessary. A variety of low-cost transmitters are available. The range of these devices is often not more than around 30′, but that’s likely plenty for most applications. Consider a König FMtrans20 transmitter. After fitting the batteries and turning it on, you can detect a carrier signal on the radio. Four channels are available, so it should always be possible to find an unused part of the FM band. A short cable with a 3.5-mm stereo audio jack protrudes from the enclosure. This is the audio input. The required signal level for sufficient modulation is about 500 mVPP.

If a guitar is connected directly, the radio’s volume level will have to be high to get sufficient sound. In fact, it will have to be so high that the noise from the modulator will be quite annoying. Thus, a preamplifier for the guitar signal is essential.

To build this preamplifier into the transmitter, you first have to open the enclosure. The two audio channels are combined. This is therefore a single channel (mono) transmitter. Because the audio preamplifier can be turned on and off at the same time as the transmitter, you also can use the transmitter’s on-board power supply for power. In our case, that was about 2.2 V. This voltage is available at the positive terminal of an electrolytic capacitor. Note that 2.2 V is not enough to power an op-amp. But with a single transistor the gain is already big enough and the guitar signal is sufficiently modulated. The final implementation of the modification involves soldering the preamplifier circuit along an edge of the PCB so that everything still fits inside the enclosure. The stereo cable is replaced with a 11.8″ microphone cable, fitted with a guitar plug (mono jack). The screen braid of the cable acts as an antenna as well as a ground connection for the guitar signal. The coil couples the low-frequency signal to ground, while it isolates the high-frequency antenna signal. While playing, the cable with the transmitter just dangles below the guitar, without being a nuisance. If you prefer, you can also secure the transmitter to the guitar with a bit of double-sided tape.

—Gert Baars, “Simple Guitar Transmitter,” Elektor,  080533-1, 3/2009.