Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley have demonstrated a way
to fabricate efficient solar cells from low-cost and flexible materials. The new design grows optically active semiconductors in arrays of nanoscale pillars, each a single crystal, with dimensions measured in billionths of a meter.
solar cell’s basic job is to convert light energy into charge-carrying electrons and “holes” (the absence of an electron), which flow to electrodes to produce a current. Unlike a typical two-dimensional solar cell, a nanopillar array offers much more surface for collecting light. Computer simulations have indicated that, compared to flat surfaces, nanopillar semiconductor arrays should be more sensitive to light, have a greatly enhanced ability to separate electrons from holes, and be a more efficient collector of these charge carriers.
“Unfortunately, early attempts to make photovoltaic cells based on pillar-shaped semiconductors grown from the bottom up yielded disappointing results. Light-to-electricity efficiencies were less than one to two percent,” says Javey. “Epitaxial growth on single crystalline substrates was often used, which is costly. The nanopillar dimensions weren’t well controlled, pillar density and alignment was poor, and the quality of the interface between the semiconductors was poor.”
Javey devised a new, controlled way to use a method called the “vapor-liquid-solid” process to make large-scale modules of dense, highly ordered arrays of single-crystal nanopillars. Inside a quartz furnace his group grew pillars of electron-rich cadmium sulfide on aluminum foil, in which geometrically distributed pores made by anodization served as a template.
In the same furnace they submerged the nanopillars, once grown, in a thin layer of hole-rich cadmium telluride, which acted as a window to collect the light. The two materials in contact with each other form a solar cell in which the electrons flow through the nanopillars to the aluminum contact below, and the holes are conducted to thin copper-gold electrodes placed on the surface of the window above.
The efficiency of the test device was measured at six percent, which while less than the 10 to 18 percent range of mass-produced commercial cells is higher than most photovoltaic devices based on nanostructured materials – even though the nontransparent copper-gold electrodes on top of the Javey group’s test device cut its efficiency by 50 percent. In future, top contact transparency can easily be improved.