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Milestone-Nomination:First Practical Photovoltaic Solar Cell

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Docket Number: 2009-02

Proposal Link:

Proposed citation in English

Invention of the First Practical Photovoltaic Solar Cell at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., 1954

At this site, within Berkeley Heights, NJ, Daryl Chapin, with Bell Labs colleagues Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson, invented the first practical photovoltaic solar cell for converting sunlight into useful electrical power at a conversion efficiency of about six percent. It was first demonstrated on April 25, 1954 and led to the development of photovoltaic solar panels used to power virtually all satellites starting with the Vanguard 1 in March 1958 and then later to power the many photovoltaic solar cell energy systems in use today.

Absolutely limited to 75 words; 60 is preferable for aesthetic reasons. NOTE: Whether or not the nominator suggests a citation, The IEEE History Committee shall have final determination of the wording of the citation.

Historic significance of this work: its importance to the evolution of electrical and computer engineering and science and its importance to regional/national/international development.

This invention was the prototype of present photovoltaic cells that are in widespread manufacture all over the world and is a key element of the renewable energy effort to reduce the use of fossil fuels to combat global warming. These inventors made their cells with Silicon, the dominant material used to make today's solar cells. This invention was recognized quickly and was the source of power for all communications satellites, including Telstar, the first commercial communications satellite.
Needless to say, communications and scientific satellites would not be possible without this invention. These cells are clearly visible on the roofs of private residents, commercial buildings, and even telephone poles. Their use is expanding rapidly.
The above provided by Dr. Alfred U. Mac Rae (NAE) Berkeley Heights, NJ, in email, February 28, 2009

Answer on a separate sheet, with references and full citations, and include supporting material in an electronic format (GIF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, DOC) which can be made available on the IEEE History Center’s Web site to historians, scholars, students, and interested members of the public. All supporting materials must be in English, or if not in English, accompanied by an English translation. If you are including images or photographs as part of the supporting material, it is necessary that you list the copyright owner.

What features or characteristics set this work apart from similar achievements?

In 1954, three American researchers, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and G.L. Pearson demonstrated a silicon solar panel of cells capable of about six percent energy-conversion efficiency when used in direct sunlight. Up until that time only about one percent energy-conversion efficiency had been achieved.

Previous History:
The following excerpt copied from Wikipedia, Solar Cell, History Of Solar Cells, ref. [1], also confirmed with more detail by ref. [5].
“The photovoltaic effect was first recognized in 1839 by French physicist A. E. Becquerel. However, it was not until 1883 that the first solar cell was built, by Charles Fritts, who coated the semiconductor selenium with an extremely thin layer of gold to form the junctions. The device was only around 1% efficient. Sven Ason Berglund had a number of patents concerning methods of increasing the capacity of these cells. Russell Ohl patented the modern junction semiconductor solar cell in 1946[2], which was discovered while working on the series of advances that would lead to the transistor.”

When the 1st Practical Photovoltaic Solar Cells were developed:
The following excerpt copied from Wikipedia, Solar Cell, History Of Solar Cells, ref. [1]
“The modern age of solar power technology arrived in 1954 when Bell Laboratories, experimenting with semiconductors, accidentally found that silicon doped with certain impurities was very sensitive to light. Daryl Chapin, with Bell Labs colleagues Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson, invented the first practical device for converting sunlight into useful electrical power.[3] This resulted in the production of the first practical solar cells with a sunlight energy conversion efficiency of around 6 percent. The solar battery was first demonstrated on April 25, 1954. The first spacecraft to use solar panels was the US satellite Vanguard 1, launched in March 1958 with solar cells made by Hoffman Electronics. This milestone created interest in producing and launching a geostationary communications satellite, in which solar energy would provide a viable power supply. This was a crucial development which stimulated funding from several governments into research for improved solar cells.” [1]

More detailed account of the how the 1st Practical Photovoltaic Solar Cells were developed:

The following is a summary of development efforts at Bell Labs leading to the invention and demonstration of the ‘Bell Solar Cell’ on April 25th, 1954, taken from reference [4] Chapter 3, ‘The Dream Becomes Real’.

In the very early 1950s at Bell Labs, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson led the pioneering effort that developed the silicon transistor from theory to a practical working device. Fuller was characterized as the experimentalist while Fuller, a chemist, learned how to control the addition of impurities that would transform silicon into good semiconductor devices. During one of their experiments with gallium doped silicon which was then treated with a lithium bath, they had inadvertently developed a pretty good solar cell. In sunlight with wires connected to the p-n junction, Pearson recorded a significant current.

While Fuller and Pearson continued to work on improving transistor devices, another Bell Labs colleague, Daryl Chapin began work on providing small amounts of power in humid conditions as they were having difficulty maintaining energy in dry-cell batteries in humid locations. Chapin suggested the investigation of solar cells in his work which was approved and which started in February of 1953. [4] He started his work by testing a commercial selenium cell and found that it only had an energy efficiency of about 0.5 percent.

When Pearson heard of Chapin’s disappointing solar cell work with selenium, he suggested switching to silicon and gave him a silicon solar cell that he had been testing. It was measured by Chapin as having an efficiency of 2.3 percent. As it was much better than selenium, he dropped selenium and concentrated on improving the silicon cell with a goal to reach an efficiency of 5.7 percent. After months of work he had not been able to improve the first silicon cell that Pearson had given him. One problem was making good electrical contact with the silicon and another was that lithium could migrate further into the cell at room temperature and therefore move the p-n junction further away from the surface.

Chapin then guessed that the p-n junction should be near the surface and turned to Fuller for advice. Fuller, two years earlier, had made a device with the junction close to the surface and offered to make some samples. These were phosphorous vaporized onto positive silicon. However, after a month of work with poor results he had a hunch that the shinny surface was reflecting the sunlight rather than absorbing it. Therefore he coated the cell with dull plastic coating and got an energy conversion efficiency of about 4 percent.

About this time RCA made a big media announcement that it had developed a nuclear powered silicon cell to coincide with the Atoms for Peace program initiated by President Eisenhower. It used photons from strontium-90 to activate current flow across a p-n junction. This caught the attention of Bell Labs management and put pressure on the solar cell research team to produce results. Fuller came up with better cells by cutting long strips modeled after Chapin’s best performing cells. Then he used arsenic to give the silicon a negative charge and used boron to create a thin positive top layer. Three samples were treated with the dull plastic coating and tested and one achieved an energy efficiency of nearly six percent in early 1954.

On April 25th, 1954, Bell executives presented the ‘Bell Solar Cell’ to the public with a display of cells using only sun power to operate a 21 inch Ferris Wheel. It was also pointed out in the press about that time that with the Bell solar cells linked together could deliver power at the rate of 50 watts per square yard while the RCA atomic cell delivered only a millionth watt over the same area, a difference of 50 million.

This ends the of summary of development efforts at Bell Labs leading to the invention and demonstration of the ‘Bell Solar Cell’ on April 25th, 1954, taken from reference [4] Chapter 3, ‘The Dream Becomes Real’.


1. Wikipedia, Solar Cell,
2. Encyclobeamia,Solar Cell Article,
3. National Inventors Hall of Fame, Daryl M. Chapin, Inducted into in 2008
4. From Space to Earth, The Story of Solar Electricity, by John Perlin, 1999, 2000, First Harvard University Press Edition 2002.
5. Solar Energy Handbook, Jan F. Krieder, Ed. In Chief, and Frank Kreith, Chapter 24, Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conversion Systems, p.24-2, History.

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