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

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.

Two-Channel CW Laser Diode Driver with an MCU Interface

The iC-HT laser diode driver enables microcontroller-based activation of laser diodes in Continuous Wave mode. With this device, laser diodes can be driven by the optical output power (using APC), the laser diode current (using ACC), or a full controller-based power control unit.

The maximum laser diode current per channel is 750 mA. Both channels can be switched in parallel for high laser diode currents of up to 1.5 A. A current limit can also be configured for each channel.

Internal operating points and voltages can be output through ADCs. The integrated temperature sensor enables the system temperature to be monitored and can also be used to analyze control circuit feedback. Logarithmic DACs enable optimum power regulation across a large dynamic range. Therefore, a variety of laser diodes can be used.

The relevant configuration is stored in two equivalent memory areas. Internal current limits, a supply-voltage monitor, channel-specific interrupt-switching inputs, and a watchdog safeguard the laser diodes’ operation through iC-HT.

The device can be also operated by pin configuration in place of the SPI or I2C interface, where external resistors define the APC performance targets. An external supply voltage can be controlled through current output device configuration overlay (DCO) to reduce the system power dissipation (e.g., in battery-operated devices or systems).

The iC-HT operates on 2.8 to 8 V and can drive both blue and green laser diodes. The diode driver has a –40°C-to-125°C operating temperature range and is housed in a 5-mm × 5-mm, 28-pin QFN package.

The iC-HT costs $13.20 in 1,000-unit quantities.

iC-Haus GmbH
www.ichaus.com

Accurate Measurement Power Analyzer

The PA4000 power analyzer provides accurate power measurements. It offers one to four input modules, built-in test modes, and standard PC interfaces.

The analyzer features innovative Spiral Shunt technology that enables you to lock onto complex signals. The Spiral Shunt design ensures stable, linear response over a range of input current levels, ambient temperatures, crest factors, and other variables. The spiral construction minimizes stray inductance (for optimum high-frequency performance) and provides high overload capability and improved thermal stability.

The PA4000’s additional features include 0.04% basic voltage and current accuracy, dual internal current shunts for optimal resolution, frequency detection algorithms for noisy waveform tracking, application-specific test modes to simplify setup. The analyzer  easily exports data to a USB flash drive or PC software. Harmonic analysis and communications ports are included as standard features.

Contact Tektronix for pricing.

Tektronix, Inc.
www.tek.com

Design a Low-Power System in 2013

A few months ago, we listed the top design projects from the Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge. Today, we’re excited to announce that Circuit Cellar‘s upcoming 25th anniversary issue will include a mini-challenge featuring the RL78. In the issue, you’ll learn about a new opportunity to register for an RL78/G14 demonstration kit that you can use to build a low-power design.

Renesas RL78

The RL78/G14 demonstration kit (RDK) is a handy evaluation tool for the RL78/G14 microcontrollers. Several powerful compilers and sample projects will be offered either free-of-charge (e.g., the GNU compiler) or with a code-size-limited compiler evaluation license (e.g., IAR Systems).  Also featured will be user-friendly GUIs, including the Eclipse-based e2studio.

RL78G14 RDK KIT

  • 32-MHz RL78/G14 MCU board with integrated debugger and huge peripheral, including Wi-Fi, E Ink display, matrix LCD, audio ports, IR ports, motor control port, FET and isolated triac interfaces
  •  256-KB On-chip flash
  • USB Debugger cable
  • Four factory demos showcasing local and cloud connectivity through Wi-Fi

The CC25 anniversary issue is now available.