Scientists Say: Photovoltaic

This term describes the transformation of light into electricity

These solar panels take energy from the sun and convert it into electricity using the photovoltaic effect. 

Christine/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photovoltaic (noun, “PHO-TOE-vole-TAY-ik” )

This term describes the creation of an electric current in a material exposed to light. Some materials, such as silicon, can absorb photons — tiny particles of light. When they do, they excite the material’s electrons — or negatively charged particles. These electrons may now break free of the atoms to which they had been bound. The flow of those electrons from one material to another creates electricity. We use the photovoltaic effect to get power from transform power from the sun into useful energy.

In a sentence

Solar panels can charge your cell phone using the photovoltaic effect.

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Power Words

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atom   The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

electric current  A flow of charge, called electricity, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

electricity   A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

electron  A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.

photon  A particle representing the smallest possible amount of light or other electromagnetic radiation.

photonics  Technology and research on the properties and transmission of light particles, called photons.

photovoltaic  effect  The creation of electricity from light.

silicon   A nonmetal, semiconducting element used in making electronic circuits. Pure silicon exists in a shiny, dark-gray crystalline form and as a shapeless powder.

solar  Having to do with the sun, including the light and energy it gives off.

solar cell  A device that converts solar energy to electricity.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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