A U of T Engineering innovation could make printing cells as easy and inexpensive as printing a newspaper. Dr. Hairen Tan and his team have cleared a critical manufacturing hurdle in the development of a relatively new class of solar devices called perovskite solar cells. This alternative solar technology could lead to low-cost, printable solar panels capable of turning nearly any surface into a power generator.
“Economies of scale have greatly reduced the cost of silicon manufacturing,” says University Professor Ted Sargent (ECE), an expert in emerging solar technologies and the Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology and senior author on the paper. “Perovskite solar cells can enable us to use techniques already established in the printing industry to produce solar cells at very low cost. Potentially, perovskites and silicon cells can be married to improve efficiency further, but only with advances in low-temperature processes.”
Today, virtually all commercial solar cells are made from thin slices of crystalline silicon which must be processed to a very high purity. It’s an energy-intensive process, requiring temperatures higher than 1,000 degrees Celsius and large amounts of hazardous solvents.
In contrast, perovskite solar cells depend on a layer of tiny crystals — each about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair — made of low-cost, light-sensitive materials. Because the perovskite raw materials can be mixed into a liquid to form a kind of ‘solar ink’, they could be printed onto glass, plastic or other materials using a simple inkjet process.
But, until now, there’s been a catch: in order to generate electricity, electrons excited by solar energy must be extracted from the crystals so they can flow through a circuit. That extraction happens in a special layer called the electron-selective layer, or ESL. The difficulty of manufacturing a good ESL has been one of the key challenges holding back the development of perovskite solar cell devices.
“The most effective materials for making ESLs start as a powder and have to be baked at high temperatures, above 500 degrees Celsius,” says Tan. “You can’t put that on top of a sheet of flexible plastic or on a fully fabricated silicon cell — it will just melt.”
Tan and his colleagues developed a new chemical reaction than enables them to grow an ESL made of nanoparticles in solution, directly on top of the electrode. While heat is still required, the process always stays below 150 degrees C, much lower than the melting point of many plastics.
The new nanoparticles are coated with a layer of chlorine atoms, which helps them bind to the perovskite layer on top — this strong binding allows for efficient extraction of electrons. In a paper recently published in Science, Tan and his colleagues report the efficiency of solar cells made using the new method at 20.1 per cent.
“This is the best ever reported for low-temperature processing techniques,” says Tan. He adds that perovskite solar cells using the older, high-temperature method are only marginally better at 22.1 per cent, and even the best silicon solar cells can only reach 26.3 per cent.
Another advantage is stability. Many perovskite solar cells experience a severe drop in performance after only a few hours, but Tan’s cells retained more than 90 per cent of their efficiency even after 500 hours of use. “I think our new technique paves the way toward solving this problem,” says Tan, who undertook this work as part of a Rubicon Fellowship.
“The Toronto team’s computational studies beautifully explain the role of the newly developed electron-selective layer. The work illustrates the rapidly-advancing contribution that computational materials science is making towards rational, next-generation energy devices,” said Professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik, an expert on computational materials science in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, who was not involved in the work.
“To augment the best silicon solar cells, next-generation thin-film technologies need to be process-compatible with a finished cell. This entails modest processing temperatures such as those in the Toronto group’s advance reported in Science,” said Professor Luping Yu of the University of Chicago’s Department of Chemistry. Yu is an expert on solution-processed solar cells and was not involved in the work.
Keeping cool during the manufacturing process opens up a world of possibilities for applications of perovskite solar cells, from smartphone covers that provide charging capabilities to solar-active tinted windows that offset building energy use. In the nearer term, Tan says his technology could be used in tandem with conventional solar cells.
“With our low-temperature process, we could coat our perovskite cells directly on top of silicon without damaging the underlying material,” says Tan. “If a hybrid perovskite-silicon cell can push the efficiency up to 30 per cent or higher, it makes solar power a much better economic proposition.”
Learn more: Printable solar cells just got a little closer
A breakthrough in solar power could make it cheaper and more commercially viable, thanks to research at the University of Warwick.
- Solar cells can be made with tin instead of lead, Warwick scientists find
- Breakthrough to make solar power cheaper and more commercially viable
- Solar power could be used in mobile phones, laptops and cars
In a paper published in Nature Energy, Dr Ross Hatton, Professor Richard Walton and colleagues, explain how solar cells could be produced which are more adaptable and simpler to produce than their current counterparts.
This could lead to a more widespread use of solar power, with potential uses in products such as laptop computers, mobile phones and cars.
Solar cells based on a class of semiconductors known as lead perovskites are rapidly emerging as an efficient way to convert sunlight directly into electricity. However, the reliance on lead is a serious barrier to commercialisation, due to the well-known toxicity of lead.
Dr Ross Hatton and colleagues show that perovskites using tin in place of lead are much more stable than previously thought, and so could prove to be a viable alternative to lead perovskites for solar cells.
Lead-free cells could render solar power cheaper, safer and more commercially attractive – leading to it becoming a more prevalent source of energy in everyday life.
The team have also shown how the device structure can be greatly simplified without compromising performance, which offers the important advantage of reduced fabrication cost.
Dr Hatton comments that there is an ever-pressing need to develop renewable sources of energy:
“It is hoped that this work will help to stimulate an intensive international research effort into lead-free perovskite solar cells, like that which has resulted in the astonishingly rapid advancement of lead perovskite solar cells.
“There is now an urgent need to tackle the threat of climate change resulting from humanity’s over reliance on fossil fuel, and the rapid development of new solar technologies must be part of the plan.”
Perovskite solar cells are lightweight and compatible with flexible substrates, so could be applied more widely than the rigid flat plate silicon solar cells that currently dominate the photovoltaics market, particularly in consumer electronics and transportation applications.
Solar cells made from an inexpensive and increasingly popular material called perovskite can more efficiently turn sunlight into electricity using a new technique to sandwich two types of perovskite into a single photovoltaic cell.
Perovskite solar cells are made of a mix of organic molecules and inorganic elements that together capture light and convert it into electricity, just like today’s more common silicon-based solar cells. Perovskite photovoltaic devices, however, can be made more easily and cheaply than silicon and on a flexible rather than rigid substrate. The first perovskite solar cells could go on the market next year, and some have been reported to capture 20 percent of the sun’s energy.
In a paper appearing online today in advance of publication in the journal Nature Materials, University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists report a new design that already achieves an average steady-state efficiency of 18.4 percent, with a high of 21.7 percent and a peak efficiency of 26 percent.
“We have set the record now for different parameters of perovskite solar cells, including the efficiency,” said senior author Alex Zettl, a UC Berkeley professor of physics, senior faculty member at Berkeley Lab and member of the Kavli Energy Nanosciences Institute. “The efficiency is higher than any other perovskite cell – 21.7 percent – which is a phenomenal number, considering we are at the beginning of optimizing this.”
“This has a great potential to be the cheapest photovoltaic on the market, plugging into any home solar system,” said Onur Ergen, the lead author of the paper and a UC Berkeley physics graduate student.
The efficiency is also better than the 10-20 percent efficiency of polycrystalline silicon solar cells used to power most electronic devices and homes. Even the purest silicon solar cells, which are extremely expensive to produce, topped out at about 25 percent efficiency more than a decade ago.
The achievement comes thanks to a new way to combine two perovskite solar cell materials – each tuned to absorb a different wavelength or color of sunlight – into one “graded bandgap” solar cell that absorbs nearly the entire spectrum of visible light. Previous attempts to merge two perovskite materials have failed because the materials degrade one another’s electronic performance.
“This is realizing a graded bandgap solar cell in a relatively easy-to-control and easy-to-manipulate system,” Zettl said. “The nice thing about this is that it combines two very valuable features – the graded bandgap, a known approach, with perovskite, a relatively new but known material with surprisingly high efficiencies – to get the best of both worlds.”
Full-spectrum solar cells
Materials like silicon and perovskite are semiconductors, which means they conduct electricity only if the electrons can absorb enough energy – from a photon of light, for example – to kick them over a forbidden energy gap or bandgap. These materials preferentially absorb light at specific energies or wavelengths – the bandgap energy – but inefficiently at other wavelengths.
“In this case, we are swiping the entire solar spectrum from infrared through the entire visible spectrum,” Ergen said. “Our theoretical efficiency calculations should be much, much higher and easier to reach than for single-bandgap solar cells because we can maximize coverage of the solar spectrum.”
The key to mating the two materials into a tandem solar cell is a single-atom thick layer of hexagonal boron nitride, which looks like a layer of chicken wire separating the perovskite layers from one other. In this case, the perovskite materials are made of the organic molecules methyl and ammonia, but one contains the metals tin and iodine, while the other contains lead and iodine doped with bromine. The former is tuned to preferentially absorb light with an energy of 1 electron volt (eV) – infrared, or heat energy – while the latter absorbs photons of energy 2 eV, or an amber color.
The monolayer of boron nitride allows the two perovskite materials to work together and make electricity from light across the whole range of colors between 1 and 2 eV.
The perovskite/boron nitride sandwich is placed atop a lightweight aerogel of graphene that promotes the growth of finer-grained perovskite crystals, serves as a moisture barrier and helps stabilize charge transport though the solar cell, Zettl said. Moisture makes perovskite fall apart.
The whole thing is capped at the bottom with a gold electrode and at the top by a gallium nitride layer that collects the electrons that are generated within the cell. The active layer of the thin-film solar cell is about 400 nanometers thick.
“Our architecture is a bit like building a quality automobile roadway,” Zettl said. “The graphene aerogel acts like the firm, crushed rock bottom layer or foundation, the two perovskite layers are like finer gravel and sand layers deposited on top of that, with the hexagonal boron nitride layer acting like a thin-sheet membrane between the gravel and sand that keeps the sand from diffusing into or mixing too much with the finer gravel. The gallium nitride layer serves as the top asphalt layer.”
It is possible to add even more layers of perovskite separated by hexagonal boron nitride, though this may not be necessary, given the broad-spectrum efficiency they’ve already obtained, the researchers said.
“People have had this idea of easy-to-make, roll-to-roll photovoltaics, where you pull plastic off a roll, spray on the solar material, and roll it back up,” Zettl said. “With this new material, we are in the regime of roll-to-roll mass production; it’s really almost like spray painting.”
Nanoscale images by Berkeley Lab researchers yield surprise that could push efficiency to 31 percent
Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a possible secret to dramatically boosting the efficiency of perovskite solar cells hidden in the nanoscale peaks and valleys of the crystalline material.
Solar cells made from compounds that have the crystal structure of the mineral perovskite have captured scientists’ imaginations. They’re inexpensive and easy to fabricate, like organic solar cells. Even more intriguing, the efficiency at which perovskite solar cells convert photons to electricity has increased more rapidly than any other material to date, starting at three percent in 2009—when researchers first began exploring the material’s photovoltaic capabilities—to 22 percent today. This is in the ballpark of the efficiency of silicon solar cells.
Now, as reported online July 4 in the journal Nature Energy, a team of scientists from the Molecular Foundry and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, both at Berkeley Lab, found a surprising characteristic of a perovskite solar cell that could be exploited for even higher efficiencies, possibly up to 31 percent.
A simple chemical conversion could be another step toward making cheap, efficient and stable perovskite solar cells.
Thin films of crystalline materials called perovskites provide a promising new way of making inexpensive and efficient solar cells. Now, an international team of researchers has shown a way of flipping a chemical switch that converts one type of perovskite into another — a type that has better thermal stability and is a better light absorber.
The study, by researchers from Brown University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, could be one more step toward bringing perovskite solar cells to the mass market.
“We’ve demonstrated a new procedure for making solar cells that can be more stable at moderate temperatures than the perovskite solar cells that most people are making currently,” said Nitin Padture, professor in Brown’s School of Engineering, director of Brown’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, and the senior co-author of the new paper. “The technique is simple and has the potential to be scaled up, which overcomes a real bottleneck in perovskite research at the moment.”