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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Solar Cell Breakthrough Could Challenge Silicon Dominance

  • Engineers at Rice University have solved a long-standing conundrum in making stable, efficient solar panels out of halide perovskites.
  • Chemical and biomolecular engineer Aditya Mohite says the new approach is as efficient as most commercially available solar cells. 
  • If the process engineering can bring the roll to roll manufacturing to commercial scale at great economy, solar energy harvesting might get quite a boost.

Rice University engineers have shown the manufacture of high-efficiency solar cells with layers of 2D and 3D perovskites may be simplified by solvents that allow solution deposition of one layer without destroying the other. The work solved a long-standing conundrum in making stable, efficient solar panels out of halide perovskites. The effort took finding the right solvent design to apply a 2D top layer of desired composition and thickness without destroying the 3D bottom one (or vice versa). Such a cell would turn more sunlight into electricity than either layer on its own, with better stability.

Chemical and biomolecular engineer Aditya Mohite and his lab at Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering reported in Science their success at building thin 3D/2D solar cells that deliver a power conversion efficiency of 24.5%.

That’s as efficient as most commercially available solar cells, Mohite said.

Mohite noted, “This is really good for flexible, bifacial cells where light comes in from both sides and also for back-contacted cells. The 2D perovskites absorb blue and visible photons, and the 3D side absorbs near-infrared.” The new advance largely removes the last major roadblock to commercial production he added.

Perovskites are crystals with cubelike lattices known to be efficient light harvesters, but the materials tend to be stressed by light, humidity and heat. Mohite and many others have worked for years to make perovskite solar cells practical.

Mohite explained, “This is significant at multiple levels. One is that it’s fundamentally challenging to make a solution-processed bilayer when both layers are the same material. The problem is they both dissolve in the same solvents. When you put a 2D layer on top of a 3D layer, the solvent destroys the underlying layer. But our new method resolves this.”

For background Mohite said 2D perovskite cells are stable, but less efficient at converting sunlight. 3D perovskites are more efficient but less stable. Combining them incorporates the best features of both. “This leads to very high efficiencies because now, for the first time in the field, we are able to create layers with tremendous control. It allows us to control the flow of charge and energy for not only solar cells but also optoelectronic devices and LEDs.”

The efficiency of test cells exposed to the lab equivalent of 100% sunlight for more than 2,000 hours “does not degrade by even 1%. Not counting a glass substrate, the cells were about 1 micron thick.

How they are made

Solution processing is widely used in industry and incorporates a range of techniques – spin coating, dip coating, blade coating, slot die coating and others – to deposit material on a surface in a liquid. When the liquid evaporates, the pure coating remains.

The key is a balance between two properties of the solvent itself: its dielectric constant and Gutmann donor number. The dielectric constant is the ratio of the electric permeability of the material to its free space. That determines how well a solvent can dissolve an ionic compound. The donor number is a measure of the electron-donating capability of the solvent molecules.

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“If you find the correlation between them, you’ll find there are about four solvents that allow you to dissolve perovskites and spin-coat them without destroying the 3D layer,” Mohite said.

Their discovery should be compatible with roll-to-roll manufacturing that typically produces 30 meters of solar cell per minute.

Co-author Jacky Even, a professor of physics at the National Institute of Science and Technology in Rennes, France said, “This breakthrough is leading, for the first time, to perovskite device heterostructures containing more than one active layer. The dream of engineering complex semiconductor architectures with perovskites is about to come true. Novel applications and the exploration of new physical phenomena will be the next steps.”

Mohite added, “This has implications not just for solar energy but also for green hydrogen, with cells that can produce energy and convert it to hydrogen. It could also enable non-grid solar for cars, drones, building-integrated photovoltaics or even agriculture.”

***

Perhaps this is the breakthrough that brings an alternative competitor to the dominating silicon solar cell. If the process engineering can bring the roll to roll manufacturing to commercial scale at great economy, solar energy harvesting might get quite a boost.

This is a big effort that came to fruition. The co-author list is long, so for here is a list of institutions. For the full list of names, please see the press release or the study paper. The institutions are, Rice University, Northwestern University, Purdue University, University of Washington, Seattle, University of Rennes, and the Argonne National Laboratory.

By New Energy and Fuel

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  • John Paul deOliveira on September 27 2022 said:
    Perovskite solar cells have had promising potential, if I remember correctly, due to a high theoretical power conversion efficiency, if multiple frequency layers are combined with a reflective backing.

    There have been numerous announcements of improvements in batteries, solar cells, etc. over the years. Material stability and roll to roll production were the challenges for PSC. If the article stated parameters regarding longevity, process, and current power conversion are true, this will be a game changer, as is. It should also only be a matter of time, before it becomes even better.

    Terrific news for a green transition. A next big advance for solar would be how to produce inexpensive inverters.

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