Class Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Recitations: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session


In this course, you will learn about the fundamentals of photoelectric conversion: charge excitation, conduction, separation, and collection. You will become familiar with commercial and emerging photovoltaic (PV) technologies and various cross-cutting themes in PV: conversion efficiencies, loss mechanisms, characterization, manufacturing, systems, reliability, life-cycle analysis, and risk analysis. Other topics covered include photovoltaic technology evolution in the context of markets, policies, society, and environment.

Course Objectives

By the year 2030, several hundred gigawatts of power must be generated from low-carbon sources to cap atmospheric CO2 concentrations at levels deemed "lower-risk" by the current scientific consensus. The necessity to develop low-carbon energy sources represents not only an awesome technological and engineering challenge, but also an equally large economic opportunity in a trillion-dollar energy market.

Students will learn how solar cells convert light into electricity, how solar cells are manufactured, how solar cells are evaluated, what technologies are currently on the market, and how to evaluate the risk and potential of existing and emerging solar cell technologies. We examine the potential & drawbacks of currently manufactured technologies (single- and multicrystalline silicon, CdTe, CIGS, CPV), as well as pre-commercial technologies (organics, biomimetic, organic / inorganic hybrid, and nanostructure-based solar cells). Hands-on laboratory sessions explore how a solar cell works in practice. We will learn how to enhance solar cell performance and reduce cost, and the major hurdles–technological, economic, and political–towards widespread adoption. Students will apply this knowledge towards developing a class project on the solar-related topic of their choosing.

Course Learning Objectives

  • Describe (phenomenologically) the principal phenomena governing the function (and conversion efficiency) of a PV device.
  • List currently commercialized technologies, and list strengths, weaknesses of each, and develop a cost model.
  • Identify limitations to terrawatt-scale deployment, and possible enabling strategies and technologies.
  • Apply the above to a real-world project, evaluating complex trade-offs between technology, economics, policy, and social aspects.

Course Structure

The course is divided into three parts: Fundamentals, Technologies, and Cross-Cutting Themes. This structure is represented by the following figure and reflected in the course calendar.

Diagram of a two-layer rectangle, with base “Fundamentals” topped by a second layer of smaller blocks in a grid, labeled Themes 1-6 and Tech A-E.

For the first half of the term, the course will operate in a "flipped classroom" mode. For lectures 2 to 12, before each class period, you will watch the assigned MIT OpenCourseWare video lecture recorded during the Fall 2011 term. Our class meetings will be devoted to further discussion and in-class activities.

Google+ Community

When this course was taught at MIT, it used a Google+ Community to keep alumni in touch with current students.


Concept Quizzes 15%
Homework 10%
Classroom, field trip, and Google community participation 10%
Manufacturing line challenge 10%
Quiz 1 10%
Quiz 2 15%
Team Project 30%

Student-Professor Contract

I recognize there are many students coming from a diverse range of backgrounds and academic levels. My objective is to make the course as meaningful and interesting as possible, and as challenging as appropriate, without leaving folks behind or causing more experienced students to get bored. While teaching domain-specific knowledge, I intend to convey an approach one can employ towards any multidisciplinary field in which technology, policy, and economics are closely entwined. This professional skill is highly transferable to other industries and problems.

In turn, I expect each student to do her / his part: attend and participate in lectures, labs, and field trips; actively read materials before class; attend TA's and Professor's office hours before you start falling behind, and pick a project about which you're passionate. I expect complete adherence to MIT's code of academic conduct.


This class is primarily taught by Prof. Tonio Buonassisi and with TAs Stephanie Scott and Dr. Tim Kirkpatrick. Other members of the MIT PVLab occasionally teach labs and deep dive tutorials.

Prof. Buonassisi's research is focused on bringing photovoltaics mainstream via technology innovations. Prior to joining the faculty at MIT, Prof. Buonassisi worked at a local solar energy start-up (Evergreen Solar, Inc.), and he continues to interact with a wide range of companies today. Buonassisi co-developed a similar semester–long course on photovoltaics at UC Berkeley, and month-long mini-courses during the MIT IAP periods of 2006 and 2007, which attracted over fifty participants across various disciplines. For more information about Buonassisi and the PVLab, see the PVLab website.

Stephanie is a second-year graduate student in Mechanical Engineering. Her research focuses on modeling impurity evolution during high-temperature processing in silicon–based photovoltaic materials. Stephanie received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012.

Dr. Tim Kirkpatrick's research interests are in the device physics of non-planar photovoltaic junctions. He joined the PVLab in September 2012 and is researching ways of increasing power conversion efficiency of thin film silicon solar cells through material processing and junction design. He completed his PhD in condensed matter physics at Boston College in August 2012.

Visiting lecturers may be drawn from surrounding companies, universities, analyst, consulting, and venture capital firms, as well as all segments of the PV value chain (wafer, cell, and module manufacturing, installation, systems integration).


Honsberg, C., and S. Bowden. Photovoltaics: Devices, Systems and Applications CD-ROM. [A free online resource.]

References and Reading Material

Books about Solar Cells:

Amazon logo Wenham, S., M. Green, et al., eds. Applied Photovoltaics. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006. ISBN: 9781844074013. [Preview with Google Books]

Amazon logo Luque, A., and S. Hegedus, eds. Handbook of Photovoltaic Science and Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2003. ISBN: 9780471491965.

Books about Solid-state Physics

Amazon logo Yu, P., and M. Cardona. Fundamentals of Semiconductors: Physics and Materials Properties. 3rd ed. Springer, 2004. ISBN: 9783540413233. [Preview with Google Books]

Review Articles

Kazmerski, L. "Solar Photovoltaics R&D at the Tipping Point: A 2005 Technology Overview." Journal of Electron Spectroscopy and Related Phenomena 150, no. 2–3 (2006): 105–35.

Books about Solar Cells:

Amazon logo Nelson, J. The Physics of Solar Cells. Imperial College Press, 2003. ISBN: 9781860943409.

Amazon logo Bube, R. Photovoltaic Materials. World Scientific Publishing Company, 1998. ISBN: 9781860940651.

Amazon logo Green, M. Silicon Solar Cells: Advanced Principles and Practice. Centre Photovoltaic Devices & Systems, 1995. ISBN: 9780733409943.

Amazon logo Poortmans, J., and V. Arkhipov. Thin Film Solar Cells: Fabrication, Characterization and Applications. 1st ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. ISBN: 9780470091265. [Preview with Google Books]

Books about Semiconductor Device Characterization

Amazon logo Schroder, D. Semiconductor Material and Device Characterization. 2nd ed. Wiley-Interscience, 1998. ISBN: 9780471241393. [Preview with Google Books]

Books about Solid-state Physics

Amazon logo Kittel, Charles. Introduction to Solid State Physics. 8th ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2004. ISBN: 9780471415268.

Amazon logo Ashcroft, N., and D. Mermin. Solid State Physics. 1st ed. Cengage Learning, 1976. ISBN: 9780030839931.

Other Specialty Books

Aberle, A. Crystalline Silicon Solar Cells: Advanced Surface Passivation and Analysis. University of New South Wales, 1999. ISBN: 9780733406454.

Amazon logo Green, M. A. Solar Cells: Operating Principles, Technology, and System Applications. Prentice Hall, 1981. ISBN: 9780138222703.