Titania nanotubes make better solar cells

February 8, 2006

A solar cell, made of titania nanotubes and natural dye, may be the answer to making solar electricity production cost-effective, according to a Penn State researcher.

"Solar cell technology has not changed very much over time and is still predominantly silicon solar cells," says Dr. Craig Grimes, professor of electrical engineering and materials science and engineering. "It takes a great deal of energy, 5 gigajoules per square meter, to make silicon solar cells. It can be argued that silicon solar cells never fully recover the energy it takes to make them in the first place."

The new focus in solar cells is toward dye sensitive solar cells, which have been made using nanoparticles and a variety of dyes.

"Nanoparticle solar cells are the gold standard of this new approach," says Grimes. "However, because of limitations, it appears they have gotten as good as they are going to get."

The researchers are instead looking at titania nanotubes to replace the particulate coatings in dye sensitive solar cells and, their initial attempt produced about 3 percent conversion of solar energy to electricity, they report in today's issue of Nano Letters. The researcher's inability to grow longer titania nanotubes, constrained the solar conversion rate.

"I think we can reach a 15 percent conversion rate with these cells, and other researchers do as well," says Grimes. "That is 15 percent with a relatively easy fabrication system that is commercially viable."

Conventional solar cells are made from blocks of slowly made silicon boules that are sliced into wafers. Grimes and his team use an easier approach. They coat a piece of glass with a fluorine-doped tin oxide and then sputter on a layer of titanium. The researchers can currently lay down a 500-nanometer thick titanium layer. They then anodize the layer by placing it in an acidic bath with a mild electric current and titanium dioxide nanotube arrays grow to about 360 nanometers. The tubes are then heated in oxygen so that they crystalize. The process turns the opaque coating of titanium into a transparent coating of nanotubes.

This nanotube array is then coated in a commercially available dye. The dye-coated nanotubes make up the negative electrode and a positive electrode seals the cell which contains an iodized electrolyte. When sun shines through the glass, the energy falls on the dye molecules and an electron is freed. If this electron and others make their way out of the tube to the negative electrode, a current flows. Many electrons do not and are recombined, but the tube structure of the titanium dioxide allows an order of magnitude more electrons to make it to the electrode than with particulate coatings.

"There is still a great deal of optimization of the design that needs to be done," says Grimes. "Now, with the help of the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority, we will have equipment to make high quality titanium coatings that are thicker. If we get about 3 percent conversion with 360 nanometers, what we could get with 4 microns is an exciting question we soon hope to answer."

The thickness of the titanium layer constrains the height of the nanotubes. With thicker initial coatings, longer tubes would produce more electrons that do not recombine, producing more electricity.

Other aspects of the titania nanotube dye sensitive solar cells that need to be optimized include the thickness of the cells. Currently, spacers separate the two layers and provide internal support. These spacers are 25 microns thick. If the spacers could be made as sturdy, but shorter, there would be less of a distance for the electrons to travel and more electrons will make it across the electrodes.

Source: Penn State

Explore further: Plasmonics study suggests how to maximize production of 'hot electrons' for cheap, efficient metal-based solar cells

Related Stories

Where is solar power headed?

July 22, 2015

Most experts agree that to have a shot at curbing the worst impacts of climate change, we need to extricate our society from fossil fuels and ramp up our use of renewable energy.

New 2-D material's properties show promise

June 23, 2015

One completed a series of theoretical calculations to predict its properties with the help of a massive computing center. The other grew it in bulk before waxing its atom-thin whiskers with the assistance of adhesive tape.

Researchers use nanotubes to better understand diseases

June 11, 2015

Researchers in UC's Department of Cancer Biology are collaborating with material scientists from the University of Houston to create and use nanotubes to capture and understand the regulation of proteins involved in a variety ...

Recommended for you

Image: Hubble sees a dying star's final moments

July 31, 2015

A dying star's final moments are captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The death throes of this star may only last mere moments on a cosmological timescale, but this star's demise is still quite ...

Earth flyby of 'space peanut' captured in new video

July 31, 2015

NASA scientists have used two giant, Earth-based radio telescopes to bounce radar signals off a passing asteroid and produce images of the peanut-shaped body as it approached close to Earth this past weekend.

Exoplanets 20/20: Looking back to the future

July 31, 2015

Geoff Marcy remembers the hair standing up on the back of his neck. Paul Butler remembers being dead tired. The two men had just made history: the first confirmation of a planet orbiting another star.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.