Researchers have created a new type of solar cell that replaces silicon with a crystal called perovskite. This design converts sunlight to electricity at efficiencies similar to current technology but at much lower cost.
A new design for solar cells that uses inexpensive, commonly available materials could rival and even outperform conventional cells made of silicon.
Writing in the Oct. 21 edition ofScience, researchers from Stanford and Oxford describe using tin and other abundant elements to create novel forms of perovskite – a photovoltaic crystalline material that’s thinner, more flexible and easier to manufacture than silicon crystals.
“Perovskite semiconductors have shown great promise for making high-efficiency solar cells at low cost,” said study co-author Michael McGehee, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford. “We have designed a robust, all-perovskite device that converts sunlight into electricity with an efficiency of 20.3 percent, a rate comparable to silicon solar cells on the market today.”
The new device consists of two perovskite solar cells stacked in tandem. Each cell is printed on glass, but the same technology could be used to print the cells on plastic, McGehee added.
“The all-perovskite tandem cells we have demonstrated clearly outline a roadmap for thin-film solar cells to deliver over 30 percent efficiency,” said co-author Henry Snaith, a professor of physics at Oxford. “This is just the beginning.”
Previous studies showed that adding a layer of perovskite can improve the efficiency of silicon solar cells. But a tandem device consisting of two all-perovskite cells would be cheaper and less energy-intensive to build, the authors said.
“A silicon solar panel begins by converting silica rock into silicon crystals through a process that involves temperatures above 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 degrees Celsius),” said co-lead author Tomas Leijtens, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford. “Perovskite cells can be processed in a laboratory from common materials like lead, tin and bromine, then printed on glass at room temperature.”
But building an all-perovskite tandem device has been a difficult challenge. The main problem is creating stable perovskite materials capable of capturing enough energy from the sun to produce a decent voltage.
A typical perovskite cell harvests photons from the visible part of the solar spectrum. Higher-energy photons can cause electrons in the perovskite crystal to jump across an “energy gap” and create an electric current.
A solar cell with a small energy gap can absorb most photons but produces a very low voltage. A cell with a larger energy gap generates a higher voltage, but lower-energy photons pass right through it.
An efficient tandem device would consist of two ideally matched cells, said co-lead author Giles Eperon, an Oxford postdoctoral scholar currently at the University of Washington.
“The cell with the larger energy gap would absorb higher-energy photons and generate an additional voltage,” Eperon said. “The cell with the smaller energy gap can harvest photons that aren’t collected by the first cell and still produce a voltage.”
The smaller gap has proven to be the bigger challenge for scientists. Working together, Eperon and Leijtens used a unique combination of tin, lead, cesium, iodine and organic materials to create an efficient cell with a small energy gap.
“We developed a novel perovskite that absorbs lower-energy infrared light and delivers a 14.8 percent conversion efficiency,” Eperon said. “We then combined it with a perovskite cell composed of similar materials but with a larger energy gap.”
The result: A tandem device consisting of two perovskite cells with a combined efficiency of 20.3 percent.
“There are thousands of possible compounds for perovskites,” Leijtens added, “but this one works very well, quite a bit better than anything before it.”
One concern with perovskites is stability. Rooftop solar panels made of silicon typically last 25 years or more. But some perovskites degrade quickly when exposed to moisture or light. In previous experiments, perovskites made with tin were found to be particularly unstable.
To assess stability, the research team subjected both experimental cells to temperatures of 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) for four days.
“Crucially, we found that our cells exhibit excellent thermal and atmospheric stability, unprecedented for tin-based perovskites,” the authors wrote.
“The efficiency of our tandem device is already far in excess of the best tandem solar cells made with other low-cost semiconductors, such as organic small molecules and microcrystalline silicon,” McGehee said. “Those who see the potential realize that these results are amazing.”
The next step is to optimize the composition of the materials to absorb more light and generate an even higher current, Snaith said.
“The versatility of perovskites, the low cost of materials and manufacturing, now coupled with the potential to achieve very high efficiencies, will be transformative to the photovoltaic industry once manufacturability and acceptable stability are also proven,” he said.
Perovskite materials can recycle light particles — a finding which could lead to a new generation of affordable, high-performance solar cells
Scientists have discovered that a highly promising group of materials known as hybrid lead halide perovskites can recycle light – a finding that they believe could lead to large gains in the efficiency of solar cells.
Hybrid lead halide perovskites are a particular group of synthetic materials which have been the subject of intensive scientific research, as they appear to promise a revolution in the field of solar energy. As well as being cheap and easy to produce, perovskite solar cells have, in the space of a few years, become almost as energy-efficient as silicon – the material currently used in most household solar panels.
By showing that they can also be optimised to recycle light, the new study suggests that this could just be the beginning. Solar cells work by absorbing photons from the sun to create electrical charges, but the process also works in reverse, because when the electrical charges recombine, they can create a photon. The research shows that perovskite cells have the extra ability to re-absorb these regenerated photons – a process known as “photon recycling”. This creates a concentration effect inside the cell, as if a lens has been used to focus lots of light in a single spot.
According to the researchers, this ability to recycle photons could be exploited with relative ease to create cells capable of pushing the limits of energy efficiency in solar panels.
The study builds on an established collaboration, focusing on the use of these materials not only in solar cells but also in light-emitting diodes, and was carried out in the group of Richard Friend, Cavendish Professor of Physics and Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. The research was undertaken in partnership with the team of Henry Snaith at the University of Oxford and Bruno Ehrler at the FOM Institute, AMOLF, Amsterdam.
Felix Deschler, who is one of the corresponding authors of the study and works with a team studying perovskites at the Cavendish Laboratory, said: “It’s a massive demonstration of the quality of this material and opens the door to maximising the efficiency of solar cells. The fabrication methods that would be required to exploit this phenomenon are not complicated, and that should boost the efficiency of this technology significantly beyond what we have been able to achieve until now.”
Perovskite-based solar cells were first tested in 2012, and were so successful that in 2013, Science Magazine rated them one of the breakthroughs of the year.
Since then, researchers have made rapid progress in improving the efficiency with which these cells convert light into electrical energy. Recent experiments have produced power conversion efficiencies of around 20% – a figure already comparable with silicon cells.
By showing that perovskite-based cells can also recycle photons, the new research suggests that they could reach efficiencies well beyond this.
The study, which is reported in Science, involved shining a laser on to one part of a 500 nanometre-thick sample of lead-iodide perovskite. Perovskites emit light when they come into contact with it, so the team was able to measure photon activity inside the sample based on the light it emitted.
Close to where the laser light had shone on to the film, the researchers detected a near-infrared light emission. Crucially, however, this emission was also detected further away from the point where the laser hit the sample, together with a second emission composed of lower-energy photons.
“The low-energy component enables charges to be transported over a long distance, but the high-energy component could not exist unless photons were being recycled,” Luis Miguel Pazos Outón, a co-author on the study, said. “Recycling is a quality that materials like silicon simply don’t have. This effect concentrates a lot of charges within a very small volume. These are produced by a combination of incoming photons and those being made within the material itself, and that’s what enhances its energy efficiency.”
As part of the study, Pazos Outón also manufactured the first demonstration of a perovskite-based back-contact solar cell. This single cell proved capable of transporting an electrical current more than 50 micrometres away from the contact point with the laser; a distance far greater than the researchers had predicted, and a direct result of multiple photon recycling events taking place within the sample.
The researchers now believe that perovskite solar cells, may be able to reach considerably higher efficiencies than they have to date. “The fact that we were able to show photon recycling happening in our own cell, which had not been optimised to produce energy, is extremely promising,” Richard Friend, a corresponding author, said. “If we can harness this it would lead to huge gains in terms of energy efficiency.”