Types of Photovoltaic (PV) Cells

Types of Photovoltaic (PV) Cells

All photovoltaic (PV) cells consist of two or more thin layers of semi-conducting material, most commonly silicon. When the semiconductor is exposed to light, electrical charges are generated and this can be conducted away by metal contacts as direct current (DC). The electrical output from a single cell is small, so multiple cells are connected together to form a 'string', which produces a direct current.

In many roof-integrated applications, strings are encapsulated (usually behind glass) to form a module (commonly referred to as a 'panel'). The PV panel is the principal building block of a PV system and any number of panels can be connected together to give the desired electrical output. However, two types of PV are best deposited as a thin film, and usually sold encapsulated in a polymer bonded to a substrate that can be used as part of the roofing material.

Here, we only look at commercially available types of PV cell or film, any of which might be found in a module or film used on an active solar roof. We do not consider:

  • Gallium Arsenide cells. Due to their toxicity and potential carcinogenic properties, these are only used in rare applications such as satellites or demonstration solar-powered cars.
  • Organic-based PV solutions that are still under research.

Monocrystalline silicon PV panels

These are made using cells sliced from a single cylindrical crystal of silicon. This is the most efficient photovoltaic technology, typically converting around 15% of the sun's energy into electricity. The manufacturing process required to produce monocrystalline silicon is complicated, resulting in slightly higher costs than other technologies.

Polycrystalline silicon PV panels

Also sometimes known as multicrystalline cells, polycrystalline silicon cells are made from cells cut from an ingot of melted and recrystallised silicon. The ingots are then saw-cut into very thin wafers and assembled into complete cells. They are generally cheaper to produce than monocrystalline cells, due to the simpler manufacturing process, but they tend to be slightly less efficient, with average efficiencies of around 12%.

Thick-film silicon PV panels

This is a variant on multicrystalline technology where the silicon is deposited in a continuous process onto a base material giving a fine grained, sparkling appearance. Like all crystalline PV, it is normally encapsulated in a transparent insulating polymer with a tempered glass cover and then bound into a metal framed module.

Amorphous silicon PV panels

Amorphous silicon cells are made by depositing silicon in a thin homogenous layer onto a substrate rather than creating a rigid crystal structure. As amorphous silicon absorbs light more effectively than crystalline silicon, the cells can be thinner - hence its alternative name of 'thin film' PV. Amorphous silicon can be deposited on a wide range of substrates, both rigid and flexible, which makes it ideal for curved surfaces or bonding directly onto roofing materials. This technology is, however, less efficient than crystalline silicon, with typical efficiencies of around 6%, but it tends to be easier and cheaper to produce. If roof space is not restricted, an amorphous product can be a good option. However, if the maximum output per square metre is required, specifiers should choose a crystalline technology.

Other thin film PV panels

A number of other materials such as cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium diselenide (CIS) are now being used for PV modules. The attraction of these technologies is that they can be manufactured by relatively inexpensive industrial processes, certainly in comparison to crystalline silicon technologies, yet they typically offer higher module efficiencies than amorphous silicon. Most offer a slightly lower efficiency: CIS is typically 10-13% efficient and CdTe around 8 or 9%. A disadvantage is the use of highly toxic metals such as Cadmium and the need for both carefully controlled manufacturing and end-of-life disposal; although a typical CdTe module contains only 0.1% Cadmium, which is reported to be lower than is found in a single AA-sized NiCad battery.

This information is for guidance only and should not be used in place of proper engineering calculations in accordance with the relevant British or European Standards.

This information is based on work undertaken by the EurActive Roofer project which ran from 2005 to 2008 and was supported by the European Union's programme for Horizontal Actions involving SMEs.