In 1839, French physicist Edmond Becquerel first noticed that under certain circumstances, sunlight shining on an electrode could create a weak electrical charge. Other scientists dabbled with this photovoltaic process, but it was not until 1954 that researchers at what was then Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J., created a solar cell using crystalline silicon, the same substance used in computer chips. Solar research received a boost from the space program, which saw the conversion of sunlight into electricity as a way to power satellites. Photovoltaics received its next burst of interest and funding during the oil embargo and energy crisis of the mid-1970s. Though photovoltaic research lost the spotlight--and much of its federal support--during the Reagan administration, work has continued and today is on the verge of commercial viability.

Simply put, the photovoltaic effect occurs when a photon strikes an electron, and knocks it out of orbit. The free electron...

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