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Age Range: 11-14
Duration: 30-59 mins
  • D&T
  • Physics

Investigate the photovoltaic effect

Learn how photovoltaic cells work and investigate the photovoltaic effect

The ‘Photovoltaic cells’ scheme of work involves investigating how photovoltaic cells are used and then using this technology to make a series of electronic circuits of increasing complexity. This could form the basis of a design and make activity in Design and Technology, with cross-curricular links with Science.

In this engaging STEM activity, designed for secondary school students, learners will discover how photovoltaic cells work, how they differ from solar thermal cells, and they will investigate the photovoltaic effect.

Activity: Investigate the photovoltaic effect

This is a short activity which involves investigating the photovoltaic effect. It could be used as a starter activity in Electronics or Product Design within Design and Technology, or to provide students with extended background information during the design and make project. It could also be used as a starter in Science.

Students will be given the ‘What is a photovoltaic cell’ handout. They should consider the following questions:

> How do photovoltaic cells differ from solar thermal cells?
> What commonly available products use photovoltaic cells?
> What are the advantages and disadvantages of photovoltaic cells?
> What factors would affect the positioning of a photovoltaic cell?

As an optional extension activity students could manufacture the circuit shown on the handout and use a voltmeter and an ammeter to measure its electrical output. This could be further extended to investigate the effect of the light level on the output.

Students could use the internet to identify different applications for photovoltaic cells, the power sources that were previously used for these applications, and the advantages of photovoltaic cells compared to these power sources.

Tools/resources required

  • Internet access
  • Ideally, small operational models of solar thermal and photovoltaic cells that the students can handle

What are photovoltaic cells?

Photovoltaic cells, also known as solar cells, are semiconductor devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity. They are typically made of materials like silicon, which have the property of absorbing photons of light and releasing electrons, thereby generating an electric current.

When sunlight falls on a photovoltaic cell, it excites electrons in the semiconductor material, which then flow in a particular direction to create an electrical current. This current can be used to power electrical devices or stored in a battery for later use.

Photovoltaic cells are widely used in solar panels for generating electricity in homes and businesses, and in remote locations where grid power is not available. They are also used in portable devices like calculators, watches, and solar powered chargers. The use of photovoltaic cells is a key component of efforts to develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

Suggested learning outcomes

By the end of this activity students will be able to list the two types of solar panel and give examples of how they are used, and they will be able to explain how photovoltaic cells work.

Download the free Investigate the photovoltaic effect activity sheet below!

All activity sheets and supporting resources are free to download, and all the documents are fully editable, so you can tailor them to your students’ and your schools’ needs.

The activity sheet includes teacher notes, guidance, useful web links, and links (where appropriate) to the national curriculum in each of the four devolved UK nations; England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Please share your classroom learning highlights with us @IETeducation.


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