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Major advance in solar cells made from cheap, easy-to-use perovskite

This first version of a new layered perovskite solar cell already achieves an efficiency of more than 20% - producing more than 0.5 volt of electricity

8 Nov 2016 | Editor

In a paper appearing online 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%, with a high of 21.7% and a peak efficiency of 26%.

The scientists report that the efficiency is also better than the 10-20% efficiency of polycrystalline silicon solar cells used to power most electronic devices and homes. Adding that even the purest silicon solar cells, which are extremely expensive to produce, topped out at about 25% efficiency more than a decade ago.

University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - Perovskite solar cell using a new technique to sandwich two types of perovskite into a single photovoltaic cell

Figure: University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - Perovskite solar cell using a new technique to sandwich two types of perovskite into a single photovoltaic cell

The achievement comes thanks to a new way to combine two perovskite solar cell materials – each tuned to absorb a different wavelength or colour 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.

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.

University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - Cross section of the new solar cell, showing the two perovskite layers

Figure: University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - Cross section of the new solar cell, showing the two perovskite layers

Cross section of the new solar cell, showing the two perovskite layers (beige and red) separated by a single-atom layer of boron nitride and the thicker graphene aerogel (dark gray), which prevents moisture from destroying the perovskite. Gallium nitride (blue) and gold (yellow) electrodes channel the electrons generated when light hits the solar cell.

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 colour.

The monolayer of boron nitride allows the two perovskite materials to work together and make electricity from light across the whole range of colours 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 stabilise charge transport though the solar cell. 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 nm thick.

The researchers believe 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 work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

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% of the sun’s energy.

Source: UC Berkeley

Alex Zettl, a UC Berkeley professor of physics, senior faculty member at Berkeley Lab and member of the Kavli Energy Nanosciences Institute, said, "We have set the record now for different parameters of perovskite solar cells, including the efficiency." Alex added, "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."
Onur Ergen, the lead author of the paper and a UC Berkeley physics graduate student, said, "This has a great potential to be the cheapest photovoltaic on the market, plugging into any home solar system."
Alex Zettl, continued, "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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”

Graded bandgap perovskite solar cells

Onur Ergen | S. Matt Gilbert | Thang Pham | Sally J. Turner | Mark Tian Zhi Tan | Marcus A. Worsley | Alex Zettl

Nature Materials (2016) | doi:10.1038/nmat4795

Received 11 February 2016 | Accepted 10 October 2016 | Published online 07 November 2016

Abstract

Organic–inorganic halide perovskite materials have emerged as attractive alternatives to conventional solar cell building blocks. Their high light absorption coefficients and long diffusion lengths suggest high power conversion efficiencies1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and indeed perovskite-based single bandgap and tandem solar cell designs have yielded impressive performances1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. One approach to further enhance solar spectrum utilization is the graded bandgap, but this has not been previously achieved for perovskites. In this study, we demonstrate graded bandgap perovskite solar cells with steady-state conversion efficiencies averaging 18.4%, with a best of 21.7%, all without reflective coatings. An analysis of the experimental data yields high fill factors of ~75% and high short-circuit current densities up to 42.1 mA cm−2. The cells are based on an architecture of two perovskite layers (CH3NH3SnI3 and CH3NH3PbI3−xBrx), incorporating GaN, monolayer hexagonal boron nitride, and graphene aerogel.

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