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        Spotlight on Photovoltaics and Fuel Cells

        A Web-based Study and Comparison

        Lesson Summary


        Students will utilize Internet resources to uncover the pros and cons of two hot topics in alternative energy technology: photovoltaics and fuel cells. Students will analyze the structure and function of each system to make observations about the implications of relying upon each technology and prospects for their future use.

        Content Objectives

        Students will know that

        • A fuel cell is an electrolytic cell.
        • The four main parts of a fuel cell are the anode, catalyst, cathode, and electrolyte.
        • A fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen to produce an electrical current.
        • The main parts of a photovoltaic cell are the n-layer, p-layer, covers and junction.
        • A photovoltaic cells coverts sunlight into electricity.
        • The flow of electrons creates a direct electric current in both fuel cells and photovoltaic cells. (DC voltage)
        • Scientific research on fuel cells and photovoltaic cells has been heavily influenced over the years by societal and economic factors.
        • There are both similarities and difference with the technology behind fuel cells and photovoltaics.

        Process Objectives

        Students will be able to

        • Describe how energy is created from the flow of electrons.
        • Compare and contrast fuel cells and photovoltaics.
        • Generate ideas about why these technologies can be considered clean energy sources.

        Assessment Strategies

        • Completion of the entire student handout.
        • Class discussions on material and web simulations.

        Grade Level: 9-12

        Suggested Time

        Three (3)- 50 minute class periods are required for this lesson.


        Per class:

        • Student computers with Internet access
        • Teacher computer
        • Projection equipment
        • Spotlight Student Handout PDF Document

          – one per student
        • Images of photovoltaic layers and fuel cells from PDF below

          Spotlight Teacher Notes PDF Document

        • Chemistry model kits or toothpicks and gum drops

        Multimedia Resources

        The Lesson

        Part I: (1-50 minute Class Period)

        1. Show students photos of a Photovoltaic (PV) array and a fuel cell and ask them what they know about the chemistry that makes each technology produce electricity.

        2. Review the chemistry terms: electron, photon, cathode, and anode.

        3. Have the students work in pairs to create the following models: hydrogen, oxygen, water, silicon. Students may use molecular modeling kits if available, pipe cleaners and gum drops or drawings to model the molecules.

        4. Give a short lecture using the Power Point below. Students will need to be able to make a general comparison between a PV system and a fossil-fueled one in a discussion at the end of the section. The “PV Presentation FSEC” content may be edited to suit the needs and skills of your students.

        5. Discuss the questions on the last slide of the presentation as a class.

        Part II: (1-50 minute Class Period)

        6. Have the students watch the web simulation on fuel cells below.

        After viewing the simulation on fuel cells, have the students spend a few minutes working in groups to fill out the differences and similarities charts on their student handout.

        7. Have the students watch and take notes on the following simulations on a photovoltaic cell at their computer:

        8. Have the students fill in the schematic of the n-layer, p-layer and junction on the PDF below and explain the chemistry behind how they function.

        9. Invite students to share what they think are the differences between photovoltaic and fuel cells. Record the student responses on the board, or assign a student to this task.

        Part III: (1-50 minute Class Period)

        10. Review how both the fuel cell and photovoltaic function to reinforce the differences in the chemistry between the two systems.

        11. Ask the students to explain why and how both systems produce electricity.

        12. Review and discuss how electron flow creates a current.

        13. Review how both the fuel cell and photovoltaic function to reinforce the differences in the chemistry between the two systems using the diagrams of the photovoltaic and the fuel cell provided in the Teacher Notes or multimedia links provided on the E-21 website.

        14. For homework have the students find a source that awards either a tax incentive or grant for using renewable energy. Have them write a paragraph about how their family might benefit from such an award. A great site for students to refer to is: Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.


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