Silicon—used to make some the earliest photovoltaic (PV) devices—is still the most popular material for solar cells. Outranked only by oxygen, silicon is also the second-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. However, to be useful as a semiconductor material in solar cells, silicon must be refined to a purity of 99.9999%.
In single-crystal silicon, the molecular structure—which is the arrangement of atoms in the material—is uniform, because the entire structure is grown from the same crystal. This uniformity is ideal for transferring electrons efficiently through the material. To make an effective PV cell, however, silicon has to be “doped” with other elements to make it n-type and p-type.
Semicrystalline silicon, in contrast, consists of several smaller crystals or grains, which introduce boundaries. These boundaries impede the flow of electrons and encourage them to recombine with holes to reduce the power output of the solar cell. However, semicrystalline silicon is much less expensive to produce than single-crystalline silicon. So researchers are working on other ways to minimize the effects of grain boundaries.