Graphene electrodes for organic solar cells
Researchers identify technique that could make a new kind of solar photovoltaic panel practical.
By David L. Chandler, MIT News
A promising approach for making solar cells that are inexpensive, lightweight and flexible is to use organic (that is, carbon-containing) compounds instead of expensive, highly purified silicon. But one stubborn problem has slowed the development of such cells: Researchers have had a hard time coming up with appropriate materials for the electrodes to carry the current to and from the cells. Specifically, it has been hard to make electrodes using materials that can match the organic cells flexibility, transparency and low cost.
The standard material used so far for these electrodes is indium-tin-oxide, or ITO. But indium is expensive and relatively rare, so the search has been on for a suitable replacement. Now, a team of MIT researchers has come up with a practical way of using a possible substitute made from inexpensive and ubiquitous carbon. The proposed material is graphene, a form of carbon in which the atoms form a flat sheet just one atom thick, arranged in a chicken-wire-like formation.
An analysis of how to use graphene as an electrode for such solar cells was published on Dec. 17 in the journal Nanotechnology, in a paper by MIT professors Jing Kong and Vladimir Bulovi? along with two of their students and a postdoctoral researcher.
Graphene is transparent, so that electrodes made from it can be applied to the transparent organic solar cells without blocking any of the incoming light. In addition, it is flexible, like the organic solar cells themselves, so it could be part of installations that require the panel to follow the contours of a structure, such as a patterned roof. ITO, by contrast, is stiff and brittle.
The biggest problem with getting graphene to work as an electrode for organic solar cells has been getting the material to adhere to the panel. Graphene repels water, so typical procedures for producing an electrode on the surface by depositing the material from a solution won't work.
The team tried a variety of approaches to alter the surface properties of the cell or to use solutions other than water to deposit the carbon on the surface, but none of these performed well, Kong says. But then they found that "doping" the surface - that is, introducing a set of impurities into the surface - changed the way it behaved, and allowed the graphene to bond tightly. As a bonus, it turned out the doping also improved the material's electrical conductivity.