As young as you might think solar technology is, we already have three generations of solar cells making an impact on the solar industry.
First generation solar cells are the larger, silicon-based, photovoltaic cells that have, and still do, dominate the solar panel market. These solar cells, using silicon wafers, account for 86% of the solar cell market. They are dominant due to their high efficiency. This despite their high manufacturing costs; a problem that second generation cells hope to remedy.
Second generation cells, also called thin-film solar cells, are significantly cheaper to produce than first generation cells but have lower efficiencies. The great advantage of second generation, thin-film solar cells, along with low cost, is their flexibility. Thin-film technology has spurred lightweight, aesthetically pleasing solar innovations such as solar shingles and solar panels that can be rolled out onto a roof or other surface. It has been predicted that second generation cells will dominate the residential solar market as new, higher-efficiency cells are researched and produced.
Third generation solar cells are the cutting edge of solar technology. Still in the research phase, third generation cells have moved well beyond silicon-based cells. Generally, third generation cells include solar cells that do not need the p-n junction necessary in traditional semiconductor, silicon-based cells. Third generation contains a wide range of potential solar innovations including polymer solar cells, nanocrystalline cells, and dye-sensitized solar cells. If and when these technologies are developed and produced, the third generation seems likely to be divided into separate categories.