New Technique Studies How Plastic Solar Cells Turn Sunlight into Electricity

December 11, 2006
New Technique Studies How Plastic Solar Cells Turn Sunlight into Electricity
A plot of the wavelength of emitted infrared light vs. the time delay of the light emission provides information about the path of an electron within a plastic solar cell. This information about how the cell makes an electric current from light will lead to improvements in the efficiency and usable lifetime of solar cells. Credit: Penn State

A new analytical technique that uses infrared spectroscopy to study light-sensitive organic materials could lead to the development of cheaper, more efficient solar cells. Using infrared (IR) spectroscopy to study the vibrations of atoms within the material, the technique provides information about the movement of electrons within a film of carbon-based materials.

Obtaining this information is a critical step in the development of a new class of solar cells, which promise significant savings in production costs compared to conventional silicon-based cells. The new analytical technique, published as the cover story in this week's issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry B, was developed by a team led by Penn State University researcher John B. Asbury, assistant professor of chemistry.

Organic photovoltaic devices (OPV) have become important because they are much less expensive to produce than silicon-based solar cells. The material consists of a film made of two different types of chemicals: a polymer that releases an electron when it is struck by a photon of light and a large molecule that accepts the freed electrons, which is based on the soccer-ball-shaped "buckminsterfullerene" carbon molecules popularly known as "buckyballs."

Because the electrical interactions needed to produce an electric current occur at the interfaces of the two components of this polymer blend, materials scientists need to understand the arrangement of molecules in the film. Asbury's new analytical technique provides a closer look at this arrangement than the techniques that traditionally have been used.

Previous studies, using atomic-force microscopy, supply general information about the packing of the molecules, but they provide very limited information about the interfaces where the molecules actually come together. IR spectroscopy, on the other hand, provides a more detailed picture of the interface by tracing the exchange of electrons between two molecules of the film.

"The problems with OPVs today are that they are not efficient enough and they tend to stop working over time," says Asbury. In order to develop a useful electric current, the flow between the two components must be optimized. "To improve performance, we need to understand what happens at the molecular level when light is converted to electrons," Asbury explains.

When the film is exposed to light, each photon excites an electron in the polymer. If an interface between the polymer molecule and the functionalized buckminsterfullerene exists, a current can be produced. However, in the materials developed to date, many of the electrons appear to become sidetracked. Asbury exposes the film to light using ultrashort laser pulses, which causes photons of light to be converted to electrons across the entire surface at the same time. Two-dimensional IR spectroscopy is used to monitor the vibration of the molecules within the film.

"The vibrations of the molecules are strongly affected by the presence or absence of electrons," says Asbury. "We use these vibrations as a probe to track the movement of electrons. By varying the structures of the materials, we expect to identify the side paths that reduce efficiency and ultimately to use that information to guide material design." The ultimate goal is a solar cell that is sufficiently inexpensive and efficient that it can be used on a rooftop to provide the electrical energy needed in a building.

In addition to Asbury, the Penn State research team includes graduate students Larry W. Barbour and Maureen Hegadorn.

Source: Penn State

Explore further: Where is solar power headed?

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.

Solving mysteries of conductivity in polymers

July 15, 2015

Materials known as conjugated polymers have been seen as very promising candidates for electronics applications, including capacitors, photodiodes, sensors, organic light-emitting diodes, and thermoelectric devices. But they've ...

Polymer mold makes perfect silicon nanostructures

July 3, 2015

Using molds to shape things is as old as humanity. In the Bronze Age, the copper-tin alloy was melted and cast into weapons in ceramic molds. Today, injection and extrusion molding shape hot liquids into everything from car ...

Recommended for you

Innovations from the wild world of optics and photonics

August 2, 2015

Traditional computers manipulate electrons to turn our keystrokes and Google searches into meaningful actions. But as components of the computer processor shrink to only a few atoms across, those same electrons become unpredictable ...

Rogue wave theory to save ships

July 29, 2015

Physicists have found an explanation for rogue waves in the ocean and hope their theory will lead to devices to warn ships and save lives.

Researchers build bacteria's photosynthetic engine

July 29, 2015

Nearly all life on Earth depends on photosynthesis, the conversion of light energy into chemical energy. Oxygen-producing plants and cyanobacteria perfected this process 2.7 billion years ago. But the first photosynthetic ...

Quantum matter stuck in unrest

July 31, 2015

Using ultracold atoms trapped in light crystals, scientists from the MPQ, LMU, and the Weizmann Institute observe a novel state of matter that never thermalizes.

Robotic insect mimics nature's extreme moves

July 30, 2015

The concept of walking on water might sound supernatural, but in fact it is a quite natural phenomenon. Many small living creatures leverage water's surface tension to maneuver themselves around. One of the most complex maneuvers, ...

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.