Research Highlights Potential for Improved Solar Cells

Feb 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of Los Alamos researchers led by Victor Klimov has shown that carrier multiplication—when a photon creates multiple electrons—is a real phenomenon in tiny semiconductor crystals and not a false observation born of extraneous effects that mimic carrier multiplication. The research, explained in a recent issue of Accounts of Chemical Research, shows the possibility of solar cells that create more than one unit of energy per photon.

Questions about the ability to increase the energy output of solar cells have prompted Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers to reassess carrier multiplication in extremely small semiconductor particles.

When a conventional solar cell absorbs a photon of light, it frees an electron to generate an electrical current. Energy in excess of the amount needed to promote an electron into a conducting state is lost as heat to atomic vibrations (phonons) in the material lattice. Through carrier multiplication, excess energy can be transferred to another electron instead of the material lattice, freeing it to generate electrical current—thereby yielding a more efficient solar cell.

Klimov and colleagues have shown that nanocrystals of certain semiconductor materials can generate more than one electron after absorbing a photon. This is partly due to strengthened interactions between electrons squeezed together within the confines of the nanoscale particles.

In 2004, Los Alamos researchers Richard Schaller and Klimov reported the first observations of strong carrier multiplication in nanosized crystals of lead selenide resulting in up to two electron-hole pairs per absorbed photon. A year later, Arthur Nozik and coworkers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory reproduced these results. Eventually, spectroscopic signatures of carrier multiplication were observed in nanocrystals of various compositions, including silicon.

Recently, the claims in carrier multiplication research have become contentious. Specifically, some recent studies described low or negligible carrier multiplication efficiencies, which seemed to run contrary to earlier findings. To sort out these discrepancies, Los Alamos researchers analyzed factors that could have led to a spread in the reported carrier multiplication results. These factors included variations between samples, differences in detection techniques, and effects mimicking the signatures of carrier multiplication in spectroscopic measurements.

To analyze how a particular detection technique might affect an outcome, John McGuire, a postdoctoral researcher on Klimov’s team, investigated carrier multiplication using two different spectroscopic techniques—transient absorption and time-resolved photoluminescence. The results obtained by these two methods were in remarkable agreement, indicating that the use of different detection techniques is unlikely to explain discrepancies highlighted by other researchers. Further, although these measurements revealed some sample-to-sample variation in carrier multiplication yields, these variations were much smaller than the spread in reported data.

After ruling out these two potential causes of discrepancies, the researchers focused on effects that could mimic carrier multiplication. One such effect is photoionization of nanocrystals.

“When a nanocrystal absorbs a high-energy photon, an electron can acquire enough energy to escape the material,” Klimov explained. “This leaves behind a charged nanocrystal, which contains a positive ‘hole.’ Photogeneration of another electron by a second photon results in a two-hole, one-electron state, reminiscent of one produced by carrier multiplication, which can lead to false positives,” he said.

To evaluate the influence of photoionization, the Los Alamos researchers conducted back-to-back studies of static and stirred solutions of nanocrystals. Stirring removes charged nanocrystals from the measured region of the sample. Therefore, when crystals are subjected to light, the stirring eliminates the possibility that charged nanocrystals will absorb a second photon. While stirring of some samples did not affect the results of the measurements, other samples showed a significant difference in the apparent carrier multiplication yields measured under static and stirred conditions. Since most previous studies were performed on static samples, these results suggest that discrepancies noted by other researchers arise at least in part from uncontrolled photoionization, which stirring seeks to eliminate.

The Los Alamos researchers re-evaluated carrier multiplication efficiencies when photoionization was suppressed. The results are encouraging.

While the newly measured electron yields are lower than previously reported, the efficiency of carrier multiplication is still greater than in bulk solids. Specifically, both the energetic onset and the energy required to generate an extra electron in nanocrystals are about half of those in bulk solids.

These results indicate significant promise for nanosized crystals as efficient harvesters of solar radiation.

“Researchers still have a lot of work to do,” Klimov cautioned. “One important challenge is to figure out how to design a material in which the energetic cost to create an extra electron can approach the limit defined by a semiconductor band gap. Such a material could raise the fundamental power conversion limit of a solar cell from 31 percent to above 40 percent.”

Provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory

Explore further: Graphene and diamonds prove a slippery combination

Related Stories

New antibody insecticide targets malaria mosquito

May 20, 2015

Malaria is a cruel and disabling disease that targets victims of all ages. Even now, it is estimated to kill one child every minute. Recent progress in halting the spread of the disease has hinged on the ...

Combatting counterfeiting using QR codes

May 06, 2015

QR security codes, developed by the start-up ScanTrust, make it possible to authenticate and locate goods using a smartphone application. Housed in the Innovation Park at EPFL, the company has developed a ...

Apple Watch isn't the only gadget out this week

Apr 09, 2015

The public will have its first chance to see, touch and buy the Apple Watch on Friday, as Apple stores in the U.S. and eight markets abroad start previews and online orders commence.

Recommended for you

Graphene and diamonds prove a slippery combination

22 hours ago

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have found a way to use tiny diamonds and graphene to give friction the slip, creating a new material combination that demonstrates ...

Artificial muscles get graphene boost

May 22, 2015

Researchers in South Korea have developed an electrode consisting of a single-atom-thick layer of carbon to help make more durable artificial muscles.

How to make continuous rolls of graphene

May 21, 2015

Graphene is a material with a host of potential applications, including in flexible light sources, solar panels that could be integrated into windows, and membranes to desalinate and purify water. But all ...

Carbon nanothreads from compressed benzene

May 20, 2015

A new carbon nanomaterial – the thinnest possible one-dimensional thread that still retains a diamond-like structure – was created by the controlled, slow compression and decompression of benzene. The ...

User comments : 0

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.