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60 Year-Old, World's First Semiconductor Solar Cell Found in UK Antique Store


Russell Ohl, the American scientist who in 1946 has patented the first junction semiconductor, inspired a science teacher to use his theory 60 years ago. The man created what is thought to be the world’s first semiconductor solar cell ever built – even before Ohl, who didn’t leave any trace of a real solar cell behind.

The contraption has been found in the UK, somewhere in Surrey, by antiques dealer Fred Nickson (owning Chiltern Antiques in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire), who bought it from a distant relative of the builder, who is still unknown. It looks like a crystal ball, and it you could have seen it in this year’s Antiques for Everyone show at NEC, in Birmingham.

The rudimentary solar cell produces about 1.5 volts of electricity, as much as a watch battery, but only if placed in direct sunlight. Modern solar cells, though, can harvest electricity even from ambient light. The teacher’s solar cell uses selenium as the semiconductor for converting sunlight into electricity. Moreover, it has a negative and a positive version of the mineral inside, to increase its efficiency, and closely resembling Ohl’s original patent.

“The man who built it would not have thought he could run something off the panel – he just wanted to prove it could be done. It is funny to think that 60 years ago the person who built this would not have believed how the same thing is being used now. The solar panel is a real boys’ toy – a slice of scientific history,” said Nickson.

World’s first solar cell ever developed was developed in 1883 by Charles Fritts, but it was nothing compared to this man’s cell, or today’s versions, still not sufficiently efficient.

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