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Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel (24 March 1820 – 11 May 1891), is a French physicist who studied the solar spectrum. He could be a source of inspiration for bright young minds; aged only 19 when he created the world’s first Photovoltaic Cell – whilst experimenting in his father’s lab!

The success behind solar cells 

Becquerel found that when exposed to light, certain materials would produce small amounts of electric current. Today we use the materials best capable of producing electricity – like silicon – as solar cells (what solar panels are made from).

He was part of an especially scientific family. Alexandre was the son of discoverer of piezoelectricity Antoine César, and had been sent to the prestigious school École Polytechnique to follow in his father’s footsteps. Alexandre went on to later have a son of his own Antoine Henri (1852-1908); who discovered radioactivity! It seems that science really does run in families. 

Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel was especially interested in light – the sun in particular. Many of us may enjoy the sunshine, but Becquerel took looking at it to another level. He researched Fluorescence and phosphorescence; the properties which made objects look like they are glowing in the dark! He discovered that in both these forms it is often a case of sunlight being absorbed then re-emitted at a wavelength which is less energetic.  Certain materials are more inclined to this than others. 

He unlocked the science behind those fluorescent jackets and light-up book bags!

Fluorescence is a process where a substance that has absorbed light then emits it; and some materials are more suited to this than others. The emitted light tends to have a lower energy than the light it initially absorbed – and therefore a longer wavelength.  We typically recognise fluorescence when the absorbed radiation is invisible to the human eye (therefore in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum) whilst the longer wavelengths it emits are on the visible side of the spectrum. This transition from invisible to visible gives the material a distinct colour (like the ‘glow’ we know) when exposed to UV light. 

The glow we know

Whilst fluorescence only lasts as long as the radiation/light source is provided, phosphorescence continues to glow for some time, even when the source has been turned off.   Fluorescence is now used in many exciting ways – including on safety equipment, toys, lava lamps; all thanks to light being absorbed and emitted at different wavelengths. 

He also conducted a number of experiments in photography, through his use of light. He discovered that materials can be more sensitive to some coloured lights more than others; for example, he discovered some interesting properties of silver halides. These halides are typically insensitive to red and yellow light, but he noticed that they became sensitive to it when exposed to blue and ultraviolet light. In turn he attempted to develop photos by bathing images in strong yellow and red light, rather than chemical treatment.

The World’s first

Silver seems to have been a significant metal for Becquerel; as it is also the material he used to create what was the world’s first photovoltaic cell – quite an achievement! Here he placed silver chloride in an acidic solution and illuminated it. He showed that light could create electricity through certain metals – as thanks to the silver being illuminated, it generated voltage and current, channelled through platinum electrodes he had attached. 

What makes a suitable cell? Becquerel was key to helping us understand. Thanks to his work on the ‘Photovoltaic Effect’, he showed that sunlight is made up of ‘packets’ of energy called Photons. Suitable solar materials absorb these photons well, because when absorption occurs, its energy is transferred to an electron in the atom of the material. This electron then escapes its normal position and becomes part of an electrical circuit: allowing power to be produced.

By 1868 he had published a two-volume treatise known as ‘Light, its causes and Effects’ – and he keeps on shining! In his name The Becquerel Prize for "outstanding merit in photovoltaics" is a yearly award at the European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition.  He provides a shining inspiration to all scientists out there experimenting with light! 


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