I have heard that most solar panels use polycrystalline silicon. It seems like a very expensive material. Are there any other materials we can potentially use to capture photons in solar panels?

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    Early solar cells were made of selenium, so yes, other materials are possible. Practicality, cost and efficiency may all vary. – John D Feb 28 '17 at 16:23
  • Read here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell and read under "Materials" what can be used. It seems like a very expensive material Explain why you think so. This polycrystalline silicon is much less pure than the Silicon used for making ICs. Also, if a 5x more expensive material has 7x more efficiency it can still be better to choose the expensive material. – Bimpelrekkie Feb 28 '17 at 16:38
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    In the semiconductor world, polycrystalline silicon is the cheap stuff. – Olin Lathrop Feb 28 '17 at 16:47
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    Due to economies of scale, silicon in electronics is like concrete in architecture. It's the cheapest thing that works. – Neil_UK Feb 28 '17 at 17:19
  • silicon is literally cheap-as-dirt. Heating, purifying, sawing it into quality crystal semiconductor takes lots of energy and time. And most semiconductor crystals are glass-like - requiring stiff mounting to prevent breaking. – glen_geek Feb 28 '17 at 20:15
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Yeah, there are many many other materials that could be used. Plastics, organics, perovkites to name a few. All you need is (from solar cell wiki):

The operation of a photovoltaic (PV) cell requires three basic attributes:

The absorption of light, generating either electron-hole pairs or excitons.
The separation of charge carriers of opposite types.
The separate extraction of those carriers to an external circuit.

The problem is finding a material that is cheap, manufacturerable, holds up over time and is efficent.

Other solar cell technologies such as perovkites could potentially be manufactured very cheaply and are competitive with silicon in efficiency. They are relatively new, and will require more research and commercial development before coming to market. We have decades of experience with silicon, and entire supply chains to support the manufacturing of silicon solar cells.

Yes, there's loads of options.

Copper indium gallium selenide. Can be on flexible substrate.

Cadmium telluride. Two unpleasantly toxic metals. The other thin film technology.

Perovskite. Not yet commercialised.

However, conventional silicon technology has achieved huge cost reductions through economy of scale, which makes it hard to catch up to. Even for the expensive monocrystalline stuff made by slicing crystals into thin layers with diamond wire saws.

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