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Photoelectric Effect


The photoelectric effect has many practical applications which include the photocell, photoconductive devices and solar cells. A photocell is usually a vacuum tube with two electrodes. One is a photosensitive cathode which emits electrons when exposed to light and the other is an anode which is maintained at a positive voltage with respect to the cathode. Thus when light shines on the cathode, electrons are attracted to the anode and an electron current flows in the tube from cathode to anode. The current can be used to operate a relay, which might turn a motor on to open a door or ring a bell in an alarm system. The system can be made to be responsive to light, as described above, or sensitive to the removal of light as when a beam of light incident on the cathode is interrupted, causing the current to stop. Photocells are also useful as exposure meters for cameras in which case the current in the tube would be measured directly on a sensitive meter.

Closely related to the photoelectric effect is the photoconductive effect which is the increase in electrical conductivity of certain non metallic materials such as cadmium sulfide when exposed to light. This effect can be quite large so that a very small current in a device suddenly becomes quite large when exposed to light. Thus photoconductive devices have many of the same uses as photocells.

Solar cells, usually made from specially prepared silicon, act like a battery when exposed to light. Individual solar cells produce voltages of about 0.6 volts but higher voltages and large currents can be obtained by appropriately connecting many solar cells together. Electricity from solar cells is still quite expensive but they are very useful for providing small amounts of electricity in remote locations where other sources are not available. It is likely however that as the cost of producing solar cells is reduced they will begin to be used to produce large amounts of electricity for commercial use.



Serway, Raymond, Jerry S. Faughn, and Clement J. Moses. College Physics. 6th ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2002.


Chalmers, Bruce. "The Photovoltaic Generation of Electricity." Scientific American 235, no. 4 (October 1976): 34-43.

Stone, Jack L. "Photovoltaics: Unlimited Electrical Energy From the Sun." Physics Today (September 1993): 22-29.

Zweibel, Ken. "Thin-Film Photovoltaic Cells." American Scientist 81 no. 4 (July-August 1993).

Robert Stearns


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—A vacuum tube in which electric current will flow when light strikes the photosensitive cathode.


—The substantial increase in conductivity acquired by certain materials when exposed to light.

Photoelectric effect

—The ejection of an electron from a material substance by electromagnetic radiation incident on that substance.


—Name given the electron ejected in the photoelectric effect.

Solar cell

—A device by which sunlight is converted into electricity.

Work function

—The amount of energy required to just remove a photoelectron from a surface. This is different for different materials.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPhotoelectric Effect - History, The Einstein Photoelectric Theory, Applications