Shining a Light on Solar Pioneers: Alexandre Edmond Becquerel

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LGCY Power is the national leader in solar power for homeowners looking to save on their energy bills. But despite the exponential growth of solar’s popularity today, the roots of solar technology date all the way back to the 1800s.

Today, we would like to highlight the contributions of one of the world’s first solar pioneers, a man named Alexandre Edmond Becquerel.

The Father of the Photovoltaic Effect

Better known as Edmond Becquerel, he was a French physicist who lived from 1820 to 1891. He’s now recognized as the father of the photovoltaic effect, the operating principle behind solar cells, and therefore the first solar panel inventor.

The concept of solar power to provide electricity for our homes and power our businesses wasn’t even science fiction yet when a young Becquerel started tinkering in his father’s lab in Paris’ Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Becquerel’s father, Antoine César Becquerel, was also a notable scientist. It was there that young Edmond conducted seminal research into the fields of electricity, magnetism, photography, and optics.

However, his most notable contribution to science was his understanding of the core principles of solar energy, leading to his role as the world’s first solar panel inventor.

In 1839, at the age of 19, Becquerel focused his research on an almost-unheard of concept – harnessing the power of the sun to create energy. In fact, Edmond Becquerel hypothesized that “shining light on an electrode submerged in a conductive solution would create an electric current.”

Working tirelessly in his father’s laboratory, Edmond ran numerous experiments in which he tried to create the world’s very first photovoltaic cell. While you may not be familiar with the term ‘Photovoltaics’ (often abridged to ‘PV’), it is defined as the process of converting sunlight to electricity; or photons to voltage.

The First Photovoltaic Cell Is Created

And he finally did create the first photovoltaic cell by coating platinum electrodes with silver chloride or silver bromide. When the electrodes were illuminated, Becquerel found that both current and voltage were generated, a true eureka moment for solar energy. His research was soon written up and published, and he was embraced as the inventor of the photovoltaic effect, which is the science behind how solar cells operate still to this day. Thanks to his work, what we now know as the photovoltaic effect was coined the “Becquerel effect.”

Alexandre Edmond Becquerel conducted countless more experiments into photovoltaics, dedicating his life to research and developing the potential for solar power in daily use. But energy created through photovoltaics never became efficient or practical, and early solar cells were mostly just used for measuring light and other optic sciences. Solar was used to create energy in the mid-1800s during the Industrial Revolution when large industrial plants used solar power to heat water into steam, which then powered their machinery.

A Patent for the Modern Solar Cell

But it wasn’t until one hundred years later, in 1939, when an American engineer named Russell Shoemaker Ohl registered the first patent for the modern solar cell while working at AT&T’s Bell Labs, U.S. Patent 2402662.

Edmond Becquerel was widely recognized and celebrated for his scientific accomplishments during his lifetime. In 1849, he was designated as a Professor at Versaille’s Agronomic Institute and later named Chairman of Physics at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers a few years later in 1853. In 1886, towards the end of his life, Edmond Becquerel was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a prestigious appointment.

The Becquerel Prize for Outstanding Merit in Photovoltaics

Still to this day, the European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition (EU PVSEC) bequeaths The Becquerel Prize for someone who demonstrates “outstanding merit in photovoltaics.”

Solar power is finally becoming mainstream, and it’s all thanks to the contributions of Edmond Becquerel with his discovery of the photovoltaic effect.

So, if someone ever asks you, “Who created solar power?”, now you’ll be fully aware that it was a Frenchman named Alexandre Edmond Becquerel!

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