Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Solar Power - History

By Dan G Carter

Solar power has been part of the way people cook, warm their homes and meet the energy needs of their life for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, builders would face the homes to obtain the benefits of the winter sun. In fact, some people believe that as early as 212 BC solar energy was being used by Archimedes. Legends tell of how Archimedes used reflective surfaces to burn enemy ships.

It was not until the 1860s that solar energy moved from passive use of solar energy to a more active use.
August Mouchout in 1861 invented the first solar motor. However, the high costs of production in the 1860s could not compete with fossil fuels. Many believed that the supply of fossil fuel would never run out. When the price of coal dropped the high cost of the proposed solar powered motor doomed it to failure. This did not however stop or even stifle interest in solar power.

John Ericsson, also known for the design of the USS Monitor created a parabolic trough collector. This technology and way of solar energy collection was used for more than a hundred years later with little change in design. Around 1900 William Grylls Adams discovered the effect of sunlight on selenium. The selenium released electrons and contributed to the production of electricity.

It was not until 1921 with Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize winning research on photoelectric effect that solar energy started to gain a foothold in research and development. It took an addition 32 years before Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Daryl Chaplin of Bell Laboratories developed a solar cell made of silicon that was capable of producing an electrical current that was measurable. This is where solar power began to become an active development product for energy research.

The largest difficulty solar power faced was cost. In 1956, just three years after the development of the first silicon cell the cost for a single watt was $300. The 1950s and 1960s however, saw some advancement due to the Space Race. Many satellites and spacecraft make use of solar panels for their electricity needs.

When the Arab Oil Embargo doubled oil prices in 1973, solar energy became top on the list of energy research as government leaders looked for a means of reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. As a result, the U.S. government invested in alternative energy research and the silicon cell produced in 1953. The use of solar energy as a mainstream alternative however would not appear until the 1990s when costs declined and allowed solar energy to become competitive against fossil fuels.

Solar power gained international notice when in 2002 Japan installed solar panels on 25,000 rooftops. Large-scale orders such as this one drove market prices down and increased demand for solar panels and solar powered water heating devices. This in turn increased research into materials, designs and improvements to help make solar panels and cells produce greater amounts of electricity in smaller spaces.
Dan Carter is an expert on solar energy at home and is a senior contributor at the Solar Power Home website.

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