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Solar Power

Periodic Graphics

Periodic Graphics: How do solar panels work?

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning illuminates how solar cells generate electricity.

by Andy Brunning, special to C&EN
March 28, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 11


An infographic on how solar panels work.
The top half of the infographic shows a cross section of a solar panel, identifying the different layers. A typical solar panel is made up of two silicon semiconductor layers, one doped to produce holes and the other doped to produce electrons. An electric field forms between the two layers. When the layers are connected in a circuit, the electric field pushes the electrons through it, creating a current.
Silicon is the most commonly used material for solar panels. Cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide are also used commercially.
In the future, solar cells produced using perovskite materials or organic polymers may become commercially successful, but they will need to overcome issues with efficiency and stability.

To download a pdf of this article, visit

References used to create this graphic:

American Chemical Society. “How a Solar Cell Works.” ChemMatters, April/May 2014.

Bourzac, Katherine. “Polymer Solar Cell Hopes to Claim New Record.” C&EN, May 23, 2018.

Desjardins, Jeff. “Animation: How Solar Panels Work.” Visual Capitalist, Jan. 31, 2017.

Jacoby, Mitch. “Stabilizing Perovskite Solar Cells.” C&EN, Oct. 14, 2018.

Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE. Photovoltaics Report. (Freiburg: Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, Feb. 24, 2022).

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest

To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit



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