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Photovoltaic solar panels absorb sunlight as a source of energy to generate direct current electricity. A photovoltaic (PV) module is a packaged, connected assembly of photovoltaic solar cells available in different voltages and wattages. Photovoltaic modules constitute the photovoltaic array of a photovoltaic system that generates and supplies solar electricity in commercial and residential applications.

The most common application of solar energy collection outside agriculture is solar water heating systems.

Photovoltaic modules use light energy (photons) from the Sun to generate electricity through the photovoltaic effect. The majority of modules use wafer-based crystalline silicon cells or thin-film cells. The structural (load carrying) member of a module can either be the top layer or the back layer. Cells must also be protected from mechanical damage and moisture. Most modules are rigid, but semi-flexible ones based on thin-film cells are also available. The cells must be connected electrically in series, one to another.

A PV junction box is attached to the back of the solar panel and it is its output interface. Externally, most of photovoltaic modules use MC4 connectors type to facilitate easy weatherproof connections to the rest of the system. Also, USB power interface can be used.

Module electrical connections are made in series to achieve a desired output voltage or in parallel to provide a desired current capability (amperes). The conducting wires that take the current off the modules may contain silver, copper or other non-magnetic conductive transition metals. Bypass diodes may be incorporated or used externally, in case of partial module shading, to maximize the output of module sections still illuminated.

Some special solar PV modules include concentrators in which light is focused by lenses or mirrors onto smaller cells. This enables the use of cells with a high cost per unit area (such as gallium arsenide) in a cost-effective way.

Solar panels also use metal frames consisting of racking components, brackets, reflector shapes, and troughs to better support the panel structure.

In 1839, the ability of some materials to create an electrical charge from light exposure was first observed by Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. Though the premiere solar panels were too inefficient for even simple electric devices they were used as an instrument to measure light. The observation by Becquerel was not replicated again until 1873, when Willoughby Smith discovered that the charge could be caused by light hitting selenium. After this discovery, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day published "The action of light on selenium" in 1876, describing the experiment they used to replicate Smith's results. In 1881, Charles Fritts created the first commercial solar panel, which was reported by Fritts as "continuous, constant and of considerable force not only by exposure to sunlight but also to dim, diffused daylight." However, these solar panels were very inefficient, especially compared to coal-fired power plants. In 1939, Russell Ohl created the solar cell design that is used in many modern solar panels. He patented his design in 1941. In 1954, this design was first used by Bell Labs to create the first commercially viable silicon solar cell.

Most solar modules are currently produced from crystalline silicon (c-Si) solar cells made of multicrystalline and monocrystalline silicon. In 2013, crystalline silicon accounted for more than 90 percent of worldwide PV production, while the rest of the overall market is made up of thin-film technologies using cadmium telluride, CIGS and amorphous silicon

Emerging, third generation solar technologies use advanced thin-film cells. They produce a relatively high-efficiency conversion for the low cost compared to other solar technologies. Also, high-cost, high-efficiency, and close-packed rectangular multi-junction (MJ) cells are preferably used in solar panels on spacecraft, as they offer the highest ratio of generated power per kilogram lifted into space. MJ-cells are compound semiconductors and made of gallium arsenide (GaAs) and other semiconductor materials. Another emerging PV technology using MJ-cells is concentrator photovoltaics ( CPV ).

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