Posts tagged circuit

Solar Power Class: Semiconductors and the P/N Junction

Holiday’s over, class, and it’s time to get back to our solar power lessons.  Today, let’s talk about semiconductors, and a slew of other things along the way!

What is a semi-conductor?  Pretty much what it sounds like.  If a substance which conducts electricity (think copper wires) is a conductor, and one that does not (rubber) is called an insulator, then a semi-conductor is right in between. Basically, atoms with only 1 or 2 electrons in their valence (outermost) orbit conduct electricity more easily than those which have a full or almost full outer valence (7 or 8).  The first are conductors, the latter are insulators.  So semiconductors are those with 3, 4, or 5 valence electrons, which means that they are neither particularly inclined nor disinclined toward conductance.

By taking silicon (which has 4 valence electrons) and doping it, as it is called, with an element which has either 3 or 5 electrons, materials with a net positive or negative charge can be created. This has to do with silicon’s natural crystal forming tendencies.  If the material used had 3 valence electrons, then the overall material has a positive charge and it is called a P-type material.  If it had 5, then the material holds a negative charge, and is called an N-type material.

All interesting enough, but things really get going when you place the two together.  The P/N Junction is the innovation that pretty much ushered in the electronic age.  The particular application of this material to solar power was actually one of the first experiments done with it, by Bell Labs back in the 50s.  When a P-type material and an N-type material are placed back to back, and a circuit is completed wiring the two pieces together, the sun excites electrons in the negatively charged layer (remember, this layer has extra electrons) and as the voltage (or pressure) builds to a point at which they overcome barrier resistance, they begin to jump to the positively charged layer where holes in the crystal structure await them.  From there, the circuit exits the P-type material and travels back to the N-type material via the wire circuit to restore the electron balance in each material.  If we hook up a battery amongst the wire circuitry, it is those bounced electrons which we store and call energy.

Okay, time for a break.  Join me back here tomorrow for the next installment of our solar power class.  In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, check out The Light Revolution, a great book about the necessary influence of the sun in our health and buildings.  Full review soon!

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Solar Power Class: Formulae Roundup

Okay, so back to the classroom, while it’s fresh on your mind. Yesterday we talked about Kirchoff’s Laws, as well as a few other formulas that you’ll use when trying to figure out your electrical generation setup and capacity. To review, here’s a listing of formulas:

Voltage = “Electromotive Force” = E
Current = “Amperes” = I
Resistance = “Ohms” Ω = R
Power = “Watts” = P

Ohm’s Law (for DC power): voltage = current * resistance ( E = I * R ),
power = current * voltage ( P = I * E )

Total Circuit Resistance: SERIES: Rt = R1 + R2 + … + Rn
PARALLEL: 1/Rt = 1/R1 + 1/R2 + … + 1/Rn

Voltage Divider Formula (Series): Erx = Et ( Rx / Rt ) (solve for resistor “x”)
Current Divider Formula (Parallel): Irx = It ( Rt / Rx ) (solve for resistor “x”)

Kirchoff’s Voltage Law (Series): Et – E1 – E2 – … – En = 0 (circuit w/ “n” resistors)
Kirchoff’s Current Law (Parallel): It – I1 – I2 – … – In = 0 (circuit w/ “n” resistors)

Whoa, boy, that’s a lot of formulas! Using these, you can pretty much figure out whatever you want about a simple series or parallel circuit. Of course, the circuits designed for power generation are rarely simple like the above, but we’ll get to that in a second!

So now that you’ve beat these formulas in your head, how do you use them? Here’s a sample problem:

“A 220V series circuit has three resistors. The first has a resistance of 25Ω, the second has a resistance of 50Ω, and the third has a resistance of 35Ω. What is the current and resistance of the circuit, and what is the voltage drop across each resistor? How much power will it produce?”

First, you diagram everything to see what you’re working with. You see that it’s a series circuit, which means that the current is common and the total resistance is the sum of all the partial resistances.

Rt = 25Ω + 50Ω + 35Ω = 110Ω

and since E = I * R, 220v = I * 110Ω, or I = 220/110 = 2 amps.

So now you know the voltage (220 V), the resistance (110 Ω), and the current (2 amps). To figure out the power produced, you simply use Ohm’s Law, (P = I * E), or P = 220 V * 2 amps = 440 watts. We’ll add that to the list: power (440 W).

The final part of the work is to figure out the voltage drops across the circuit at each resistor. This will require the voltage divider formula, since it’s a series circuit. ( Ex = Et ( Rx / Rt ) )

Here are the values plugged in for resistor 1: Er1 = 220V ( 25Ω / 110Ω ) = 50V.
Here are the values plugged in for resistor 2: Er2 = 220V ( 50Ω / 110Ω ) = 100V.
Here are the values plugged in for resistor 2: Er3 = 220V ( 35Ω / 110Ω ) = 70V.

You can check your work on this by adding all the voltage drops together: they should equal the voltage given in the problem: 50V + 100V + 70V = 220V. Good! Now for extra credit you can figure out the power produced at each resistor by using your power formula and the voltage and resistance of each resistor in the circuit. If you do, post your answer in the comments section!

This is basically the same process as for parallel circuits. Let’s use the same problem as above, but now the circuit is hooked up in parallel:

In this case, to get total resistance, you use the formula 1/Rt = 1/R1 + 1/R2 + 1/R3. This looks scarier than it is. to get a reciprocal (one divided by a number) on a calculator, you simply plug in the number, hit the divided by sign, then the equals sign. The calculator will do all the dirty work for you, but you should try doing them in your head sometimes, ’cause you never know when the calculator might stop working when you need to figure something out! So:

1/Rt = 1/25Ω + 1/50Ω + 1/35Ω = .04 + .02 + 0.0286 = 0.0886

This is the reciprocal of the total resistance (this is also called the “conductance”), so we take the reciprocal of this and get a total resistance: 11.287Ω. A total resistance of less than each of the parts? Yes, this example illustrates two things about parallel circuits: first, the numbers are rarely as “pretty” as in series circuits. Secondly, the total resistance of a parallel circuit is always less than the lowest partial resistance. If it’s not, then you calculated something incorrectly.

So now, as before, we know the voltage (220V) and the resistance (11.287Ω). To figure out the total current, we use Ohm’s Law ( E = I * R ): 220V = I * 11.287Ω so I = 19.49 amps. You can now easily figure out the power produced: P = 19.49A * 220V = 4287.8 watts of power (or 4.3 kW).

Using the same resistors and voltage, you’re generating more than ten times the power by hooking things up in parallel!

Rounding out the lesson, you’re now trying to figure out the current drop across the resistors (remember, in a parallel circuit, current is divided, not voltage). Use the Current Divider Formula: Irx = It ( Rt / Rx )

Here are the values plugged in for the first resistor: Ir1 = 19.49A ( 11.28Ω / 25Ω ) = 8.794 A.
Here are the values plugged in for the second resistor: Ir2 = 19.49A ( 11.28Ω / 50Ω ) = 4.397 A.
Here are the values plugged in for the third resistor: Ir3 = 19.49A ( 11.28Ω / 35Ω ) = 6.281 A.

To check your numbers, use Kirchoff’s Current Law, and add up the current drops:
8.794 A + 4.397 A + 6.281 A = 19.472 A, which is the same as above, save my rounding. This is why it’s important to keep numbers true to the highest number of decimal places you can… your work will be that much more accurate.

Again, if you want to figure out the power available at any point, use the same process as for the series circuit.

Congratulations! You’ve now mastered simple series and parallel circuits. That’s a lot to know. Next time, we’ll take a look at how to deal with more complex circuits, like the ones you might encounter in your alternative energy generating system, and also talk about why all this math is important to you when all you want to do is drop off the grid and tune out. I found that this stuff didn’t really cement in my head until I tried figuring out practical problems with them, so I’d recommend you do a little practice session, perhaps using the problems found at Open DNS: Ohm’s Law Practice 1, and Ohm’s Law Practice 2. Or try this site if you like to “play and learn”: Ohm’s Law Battleship Game, where your shots won’t land unless you can solve some problems along the way. See you next time, captain!

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