Tag Archives: solar cells

Back to the mortar and pestle for perovskite-based photovoltaics

This mechanochemistry (think mortar and pestle) story about perovskite comes from Poland. From a Jan. 14, 2016 Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences press release (also on EurekAlert but dated Jan. 16, 2016),

Perovskites, substances that perfectly absorb light, are the future of solar energy. The opportunity for their rapid dissemination has just increased thanks to a cheap and environmentally safe method of production of these materials, developed by chemists from Warsaw, Poland. Rather than in solutions at a high temperature, perovskites can now be synthesized by solid-state mechanochemical processes: by grinding powders.

We associate the milling of chemicals less often with progress than with old-fashioned pharmacies and their inherent attributes: the pestle and mortar. [emphasis mine] It’s time to change this! Recent research findings show that by the use of mechanical force, effective chemical transformations take place in solid state. Mechanochemical reactions have been under investigation for many years by the teams of Prof. Janusz Lewinski from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) and the Faculty of Chemistry of Warsaw University of Technology. In their latest publication, the Warsaw researchers describe a surprisingly simple and effective method of obtaining perovskites – futuristic photovoltaic materials with a spatially complex crystal structure.

“With the aid of mechanochemistry we are able to synthesize a variety of hybrid inorganic-organic functional materials with a potentially great significance for the energy sector. Our youngest ‘offspring’ are high quality perovskites. These compounds can be used to produce thin light-sensitive layers for high efficiency solar cells,” says Prof. Lewinski.

Perovskites are a large group of materials, characterized by a defined spatial crystalline structure. In nature, the perovskite naturally occurring as a mineral is calcium titanium(IV) oxide CaTiO3. Here the calcium atoms are arranged in the corners of the cube, in the middle of each wall there is an oxygen atom and at the centre of the cube lies a titanium atom. In other types of perovskite the same crystalline structure can be constructed of various organic and inorganic compounds, which means titanium can be replaced by, for example, lead, tin or germanium. As a result, the properties of the perovskite can be adjusted so as to best fit the specific application, for example, in photovoltaics or catalysis, but also in the construction of superconducting electromagnets, high voltage transformers, magnetic refrigerators, magnetic field sensors, or RAM memories.

At first glance, the method of production of perovskites using mechanical force, developed at the IPC PAS, looks a little like magic.

“Two powders are poured into the ball mill: a white one, methylammonium iodide CH3NH3I, and a yellow one, lead iodide PbI2. After several minutes of milling no trace is left of the substrates. Inside the mill there is only a homogeneous black powder: the perovskite CH3NH3PbI3,” explains doctoral student Anna Maria Cieslak (IPC PAS).

“Hour after hour of waiting for the reaction product? Solvents? High temperatures? In our method, all this turns out to be unnecessary! We produce chemical compounds by reactions occurring only in solids at room temperature,” stresses Dr. Daniel Prochowicz (IPC PAS).

The mechanochemically manufactured perovskites were sent to the team of Prof. Michael Graetzel from the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland, where they were used to build a new laboratory solar cell. The performance of the cell containing the perovskite with a mechanochemical pedigree proved to be more than 10% greater than a cell’s performance with the same construction, but containing an analogous perovskite obtained by the traditional method, involving solvents.

“The mechanochemical method of synthesis of perovskites is the most environmentally friendly method of producing this class of materials. Simple, efficient and fast, it is ideal for industrial applications. With full responsibility we can state: perovskites are the materials of the future, and mechanochemistry is the future of perovskites,” concludes Prof. Lewinski.

The described research will be developed within GOTSolar collaborative project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 Future and Emerging Technologies action.

Perovskites are not the only group of three-dimensional materials that has been produced mechanochemically by Prof. Lewinski’s team. In a recent publication the Warsaw researchers showed that by using the milling technique they can also synthesize inorganic-organic microporous MOF (Metal-Organic Framework) materials. The free space inside these materials is the perfect place to store different chemicals, including hydrogen.

This research was published back in August 2015,

Mechanosynthesis of the hybrid perovskite CH3NH3PbI3: characterization and the corresponding solar cell efficiency by D. Prochowicz, M. Franckevičius, A. M. Cieślak, S. M. Zakeeruddin, M. Grätzel and J. Lewiński. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2015,3, 20772-20777 DOI: 10.1039/C5TA04904K First published online 27 Aug 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of New Brunswick (Canada), ‘sun in a can’, and buckyballs

Cutting the cost for making solar cells could be a step in the right direction for more widespread adoption. At any rate, that seems to be the motivation for Dr. Felipe Chibante of the University of New Brunswick  and his team as they’ve worked for the past three years or so on cutting production costs for fullerenes (also known as, buckminsterfullerenes, C60, and buckyballs). From a Dec. 23, 2015 article by Michael Tutton for Canadian Press,

A heating system so powerful it gave its creator a sunburn from three metres away is being developed by a New Brunswick engineering professor as a method to sharply reduce the costs of making the carbon used in some solar cells.

Felipe Chibante says his “sun in a can” method of warming carbon at more than 5,000 degrees Celsius helps create the stable carbon 60 needed in more flexible forms of photovoltaic panels.

Tutton includes some technical explanations in his article,

Chibante and senior students at the University of New Brunswick created the system to heat baseball-sized lumps of plasma — a form of matter composed of positively charged gas particles and free-floating negatively charged electrons — at his home and later in a campus lab.

According to a May 22, 2012 University of New Brunswick news release received funding of almost $1.5M from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency for his work with fullerenes,

Dr. Felipe Chibante, associate professor in UNB’s department of chemical engineering, and his team at the Applied Nanotechnology Lab received nearly $1.5 million to lower the cost of fullerenes, which is the molecular form of pure carbon and is a critical ingredient for the plastic solar cell market.

Dr. Chibante and the collaborators on the project have developed fundamental synthesis methods that will be integrated in a unique plasma reactor to result in a price reduction of 50-75 per cent.

Dr. Chibante and his work were also featured in a June 10, 2013 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

Judges with the New Brunswick Innovation Fund like the idea and recently awarded Chibante $460,000 to continue his research at the university’s Fredericton campus.

Chibante has a long history of working with fullerenes — carbon molecules that can store the sun’s energy. He was part of the research team that discovered fullerenes in 1985 [the three main researchers at Rice University, Texas, received Nobel Prizes for the work].

He says they can be added to liquid, spread over plastic and shingles and marketed as a cheaper way to convert sunlight into electricity.

“What we’re trying to do in New Brunswick with the science research and innovation is we’re really trying to get the maximum bang for the buck,” said Chibante.

As it stands, fullerenes cost about $15,000 per kilogram. Chibante hopes to lower the cost by a factor of 10.

The foundation investment brings Chibante’s research funding to about $6.2 million.

Not everyone is entirely sold on this approach to encouraging solar energy adoption (from the CBC news item),

The owner of Urban Pioneer, a Fredericton [New Brunswick] company that sells alternative energy products, likes the concept, but doubts there’s much of a market in New Brunswick.

“We have conventional solar panels right now and they’re not that popular,” said Tony Craft.

“So I can’t imagine, like, when you throw something completely brand new into it, I don’t know how people are going to respond to that even, so it may be a very tough sell,” he said.

Getting back to Chibante’s breakthrough (from Tutton’s Dec. 23, 2015 article),

The 52-year-old researcher says he first set up the system to operate in his garage.

He installed optical filters to watch the melting process but said the light from the plasma was so intense that he later noticed a sunburn on his neck.

The plasma is placed inside a container that can contain and cool the extremely hot material without exposing it to the air.

The conversion technology has the advantage of not using solvents and doesn’t produce the carbon dioxide that other baking systems use, says Chibante.

He says the next stage is finding commercial partners who can help his team further develop the system, which was originally designed and patented by French researcher Laurent Fulcheri.

Chibante said he doesn’t believe the carbon-based, thin-film solar cells will displace the silicon-based cells because they capture less energy.

But he nonetheless sees a future for the more flexible sheets of solar cells.

“You can make fibres, you can make photovoltaic threads and you get into wearable, portable forms of power that makes it more ubiquitous rather than having to carry a big, rigid structure,” he said.

The researcher says the agreement earlier this month [Nov. 30 – Dec. 12, 2015] in Paris among 200 countries to begin reducing the use of fossil fuels and slow global warming may help his work.

By the way,  Chibante estimates production costs for fullerenes, when using his system, would be less that $50/kilogram for what is now the highest priced component of carbon-based solar cells.

There is another researcher in Canada who works in the field of solar energy, Dr. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto (Ontario). He largely focuses on harvesting solar energy by using quantum dots. I last featured Sargent’s quantum dot work in a Dec. 9, 2014 posting.

100 percent efficiency transporting the energy of sunlight from receptors to reaction centers

Genetic engineering has been combined with elements of quantum physics to find a better way of transferring the energy derived from sunlight from the receptors to the reaction centers (i.e., photosynthesis). From an Oct. 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Nature has had billions of years to perfect photosynthesis, which directly or indirectly supports virtually all life on Earth. In that time, the process has achieved almost 100 percent efficiency in transporting the energy of sunlight from receptors to reaction centers where it can be harnessed — a performance vastly better than even the best solar cells.

One way plants achieve this efficiency is by making use of the exotic effects of quantum mechanics — effects sometimes known as “quantum weirdness.” These effects, which include the ability of a particle to exist in more than one place at a time [superposition], have now been used by engineers at MIT to achieve a significant efficiency boost in a light-harvesting system.

Surprisingly, the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researchers achieved this new approach to solar energy not with high-tech materials or microchips — but by using genetically engineered viruses.

An Oct. 15, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, recounts an exciting tale of interdisciplinary work and an international collaboration,

This achievement in coupling quantum research and genetic manipulation, described this week in the journal Nature Materials, was the work of MIT professors Angela Belcher, an expert on engineering viruses to carry out energy-related tasks, and Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum theory and its potential applications; research associate Heechul Park; and 14 collaborators at MIT and in Italy.

Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering, explains that in photosynthesis, a photon hits a receptor called a chromophore, which in turn produces an exciton — a quantum particle of energy. This exciton jumps from one chromophore to another until it reaches a reaction center, where that energy is harnessed to build the molecules that support life.

But the hopping pathway is random and inefficient unless it takes advantage of quantum effects that allow it, in effect, to take multiple pathways at once and select the best ones, behaving more like a wave than a particle.

This efficient movement of excitons has one key requirement: The chromophores have to be arranged just right, with exactly the right amount of space between them. This, Lloyd explains, is known as the “Quantum Goldilocks Effect.”

That’s where the virus comes in. By engineering a virus that Belcher has worked with for years, the team was able to get it to bond with multiple synthetic chromophores — or, in this case, organic dyes. The researchers were then able to produce many varieties of the virus, with slightly different spacings between those synthetic chromophores, and select the ones that performed best.

In the end, they were able to more than double excitons’ speed, increasing the distance they traveled before dissipating — a significant improvement in the efficiency of the process.

The project started from a chance meeting at a conference in Italy. Lloyd and Belcher, a professor of biological engineering, were reporting on different projects they had worked on, and began discussing the possibility of a project encompassing their very different expertise. Lloyd, whose work is mostly theoretical, pointed out that the viruses Belcher works with have the right length scales to potentially support quantum effects.

In 2008, Lloyd had published a paper demonstrating that photosynthetic organisms transmit light energy efficiently because of these quantum effects. When he saw Belcher’s report on her work with engineered viruses, he wondered if that might provide a way to artificially induce a similar effect, in an effort to approach nature’s efficiency.

“I had been talking about potential systems you could use to demonstrate this effect, and Angela said, ‘We’re already making those,'” Lloyd recalls. Eventually, after much analysis, “We came up with design principles to redesign how the virus is capturing light, and get it to this quantum regime.”

Within two weeks, Belcher’s team had created their first test version of the engineered virus. Many months of work then went into perfecting the receptors and the spacings.

Once the team engineered the viruses, they were able to use laser spectroscopy and dynamical modeling to watch the light-harvesting process in action, and to demonstrate that the new viruses were indeed making use of quantum coherence to enhance the transport of excitons.

“It was really fun,” Belcher says. “A group of us who spoke different [scientific] languages worked closely together, to both make this class of organisms, and analyze the data. That’s why I’m so excited by this.”

While this initial result is essentially a proof of concept rather than a practical system, it points the way toward an approach that could lead to inexpensive and efficient solar cells or light-driven catalysis, the team says. So far, the engineered viruses collect and transport energy from incoming light, but do not yet harness it to produce power (as in solar cells) or molecules (as in photosynthesis). But this could be done by adding a reaction center, where such processing takes place, to the end of the virus where the excitons end up.

MIT has produced a video explanation of the work,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Enhanced energy transport in genetically engineered excitonic networks by Heechul Park, Nimrod Heldman, Patrick Rebentrost, Luigi Abbondanza, Alessandro Iagatti, Andrea Alessi, Barbara Patrizi, Mario Salvalaggio, Laura Bussotti, Masoud Mohseni, Filippo Caruso, Hannah C. Johnsen, Roberto Fusco, Paolo Foggi, Petra F. Scudo, Seth Lloyd, & Angela M. Belcher. Nature Materials (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4448 Published online 12 October 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of Vermont and the ‘excitons’ of an electron superhighway

This story starts off with one of the current crazes, folding and bendable electronics, before heading off onto the ‘electron highway’. From a Sept. 14, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: Links have been removed),

TV screens that roll up. Roofing tiles that double as solar panels. Sun-powered cell phone chargers woven into the fabric of backpacks. A new generation of organic semiconductors may allow these kinds of flexible electronics to be manufactured at low cost, says University of Vermont physicist and materials scientist Madalina Furis.

But the basic science of how to get electrons to move quickly and easily in these organic materials remains murky.

To help, Furis and a team of UVM materials scientists have invented a new way to create what they are calling “an electron superhighway” in one of these materials — a low-cost blue dye called phthalocyanine — that promises to allow electrons to flow faster and farther in organic semiconductors.

A Sept. 14, 2015 University of Vermont news release (also on EurekAlert) by Joshua E. Brown, which originated the news item, describes the problem the researches were trying to solve and the solution they found,

Hills and potholes

Many of these types of flexible electronic devices will rely on thin films of organic materials that catch sunlight and convert the light into electric current using excited states in the material called “excitons.” Roughly speaking, an exciton is a displaced electron bound together with the hole it left behind. Increasing the distance these excitons can diffuse — before they reach a juncture where they’re broken apart to produce electrical current — is essential to improving the efficiency of organic semiconductors.

Using a new imaging technique, the UVM team was able to observe nanoscale defects and boundaries in the crystal grains in the thin films of phthalocyanine — roadblocks in the electron highway. “We have discovered that we have hills that electrons have to go over and potholes that they need to avoid,” Furis explains.

To find these defects, the UVM team — with support from the National Science Foundation — built a scanning laser microscope, “as big as a table” Furis says. The instrument combines a specialized form of linearly polarized light and photoluminescence to optically probe the molecular structure of the phthalocyanine crystals.

“Marrying these two techniques together is new; it’s never been reported anywhere,” says Lane Manning ’08 a doctoral student in Furis’ lab and co-author on the new study.

The new technique allows the scientists a deeper understanding of how the arrangement of molecules and the boundaries in the crystals influence the movement of excitons. It’s these boundaries that form a “barrier for exciton diffusion,” the team writes.

And then, with this enhanced view, “this energy barrier can be entirely eliminated,” the team writes. The trick: very carefully controlling how the thin films are deposited. Using a novel “pen-writing” technique with a hollow capillary, the team worked in the lab of UVM physics and materials science professor Randy Headrick to successfully form films with jumbo-sized crystal grains and “small angle boundaries.” Think of these as easy-on ramps onto a highway — instead of an awkward stop sign at the top of a hill — that allow excitons to move far and fast.

Better solar cells

Though the Nature Communications study focused on just one organic material, phthalocyanine, the new research provides a powerful way to explore many other types of organic materials, too — with particular promise for improved solar cells. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report identified one of the fundamental bottlenecks to improved solar power technologies as “determining the mechanisms by which the absorbed energy (exciton) migrates through the system prior to splitting into charges that are converted to electricity.”

The new UVM study — led by two of Furis’ students, Zhenwen Pan G’12, and Naveen Rawat G’15 — opens a window to view how increasing “long-range order” in the organic semiconductor films is a key mechanism that allows excitons to migrate farther. “The molecules are stacked like dishes in a dish rack,” Furis explains, “these stacked molecules — this dish rack — is the electron superhighway.”

Though excitons are neutrally charged — and can’t be pushed by voltage like the electrons flowing in a light bulb — they can, in a sense, bounce from one of these tightly stacked molecules to the next. This allows organic thin films to carry energy along this molecular highway with relative ease, though no net electrical charge is transported.

“One of today’s big challenges is how to make better photovoltaics and solar technologies,” says Furis, who directs UVM’s program in materials science, “and to do that we need a deeper understanding of exciton diffusion. That’s what this research is about.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Polarization-resolved spectroscopy imaging of grain boundaries and optical excitations in crystalline organic thin films by Z. Pan, N. Rawat, I. Cour, L. Manning, R. L. Headrick, & M. Furis. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8201 doi:10.1038/ncomms9201 Published 14 September 2015

This is an open access article.

Solar cells from the University of Alberta?

Trevor Robb’s Aug. 7, 2015 article for the Edmonton Sun (Alberta, Canada) features a research team dedicated to producing better solar cells and a facility (nanoFAB) at the University of Alberta,

But in an energy rich province like Alberta — known for its oil and gas sector — [JIllian] Buriak [chemistry professor at the University of Alberta, Canada Research chair of nanomaterials] is on a mission to shed some light on another form of energy Alberta is known for, solar energy.

So her team is dedicated to producing flexible, recyclable plastic solar cells that can be printed just like a newspaper.

In fact, they’ve already begun doing so.

In order to produce the sheet-like solar cells, Buriak and her team use nothing more than simple commercial laminators and a spray gun, not unlike something you would use to paint a car.

“We run them through this laminator that squeezes them down and turns them from something that’s not conducting to something that’s really conducting,” said Buriak.

“You could incorporate it into clothing, you could incorporate it into books, into window blinds, or unroll it on a tent when you’re camping,” said Buriak. “You could use it anywhere. Anything from simple funny things to cafe umbrellas that could allow you to charge electronic devices, to large scale things in developing countries; large scale solar cells that you could simply carry on your backpack, unroll at a medical clinic, and suddenly you have instant power.”

There are more details about Buriak’s work and information about nanoFAB in Robb’s article. As for technical information, the best I can find is in an Aug. 29, 2013 University of Alberta news release (also on EurekAlert),

University of Alberta researchers have found that abundant materials in the Earth’s crust can be used to make inexpensive and easily manufactured nanoparticle-based solar cells.

The discovery, several years in the making, is an important step forward in making solar power more accessible to parts of the world that are off the traditional electricity grid or face high power costs, such as the Canadian North, said researcher Jillian Buriak, a chemistry professor and senior research officer of the National Institute for Nanotechnology based on the U of A campus.
Buriak and her team have designed nanoparticles that absorb light and conduct electricity from two very common elements: phosphorus and zinc. Both materials are more plentiful than scarce materials such as cadmium and are free from manufacturing restrictions imposed on lead-based nanoparticles.

Buriak collaborated with U of A post-doctoral fellows Erik Luber of the U of A Faculty of Engineering and Hosnay Mobarok of the Faculty of Science to create the nanoparticles. The team was able to develop a synthetic method to make zinc phosphide nanoparticles, and demonstrated that the particles can be dissolved to form an ink and processed to make thin films that are responsive to light.

Buriak and her team are now experimenting with the nanoparticles, spray-coating them onto large solar cells to test their efficiency. The team has applied for a provisional patent and has secured funding to enable the next step to scale up manufacture.

I wonder if this news article by Robb is an attempt by Buriak to attract interest from potential investors?

Perovskite, nanorods, and solar energy

As the authors, Azhar Fakharuddin, Rajan Jose, and Thomas Brown, note in an Aug. 7, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article , securing energy sources is a global pursuit and pervoskite (a new wonder material for solar cells) has presented a challenge (Note: A link has been removed),

Energy security has been a top global concern motivating researchers to seek it from renewable and cost-effective resources. Solar cells, that convert sun light into electricity, hold the promise as a cheap energy alternative. The silicon and thin film photovoltaic industry have taken many strides to lower energy prices; however, continued research is required in order to extensively compete with fossil fuels.

The development of perovskite solar cells, first reported in 2009 (and with a record power conversion efficiency of 20.1 percent so far), is a possible route towards high efficiency photovoltaics that are also cost-effectiveness, owing to to their easy-processing from solution.

Question marks have however remained on their stability.

The authors (members of a research team) have recently published a paper about a method that could make perovskite solar cells more stable,

Now, a research team from University Malaysia Pahang, focussing on renewable energy, working in in collaboration with scientists from University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, Italy, has developed the world’s first nanorod-based perovskite solar module.

Among the three types of electron transport layers investigated, the nanorod-based devices retained the original efficiency values even after 2500 hours of shelf-life investigation, a protocol used to gauge initial stability and indoor lifetime performance.
The device employing a conventional TiO2 nanoparticle material showed nearly 60% of original performance, whereas planar devices employing a compact TiO2 layer showed below 5% of original performance, measured at similar experimental conditions.
A chemical analysis of the devices hinted that the peculiar conformation of nanorods facilitates a stable perovskite phase due to their inherent stability and macroporous nature.

If you want more detail, the research team’s Nanowerk Spotlight article is the place to look (it’s almost like a Reddit session except there’s no ‘ask me anything’ option). There’s also the team’s paper,

Vertical TiO2 Nanorods as a Medium for Stable and High-Efficiency Perovskite Solar Modules by Azhar Fakharuddin, Francesco Di Giacomo, Alessandro L. Palma, Fabio Matteocci, Irfan Ahmed, Stefano Razza, Alessandra D’Epifanio, Silvia Licoccia, Jamil Ismail, Aldo Di Carlo, Thomas M. Brown, and Rajan Jose. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b03265 Publication Date (Web): July 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final note, I’ve been meaning to publish a post about perovskite-based solar cells for a while now as the material seems to be sweeping the solar energy community and, now, it’s done.

Saving silver; a new kind of electrode

An Aug. 1, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now highlights work from Germany’s Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin),

The electrodes for connections on the “sunny side” of a solar cell need to be not just electrically conductive, but transparent as well. As a result, electrodes are currently made either by using thin strips of silver in the form of a coarse-meshed grid squeegeed onto a surface, or by applying a transparent layer of electrically conductive indium tin oxide (ITO) compound. Neither of these are ideal solutions, however. This is because silver is a precious metal and relatively expensive, and silver particles with nanoscale dimensions oxidise particularly rapidly; meanwhile, indium is one of the rarest elements on earth crust and probably will only continue to be available for a few more years.

Manuela Göbelt on the team of Prof. Silke Christiansen has now developed an elegant new solution using only a fraction of the silver and entirely devoid of indium to produce a technologically intriguing electrode. The doctoral student initially made a suspension of silver nanowires in ethanol using wet-chemistry techniques. She then transferred this suspension with a pipette onto a substrate, in this case a silicon solar cell. As the solvent is evaporated, the silver nanowires organise themselves into a loose mesh that remains transparent, yet dense enough to form uninterrupted current paths.

A July 31, 2015 Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Subsequently, Göbelt used an atomic layer deposition technique to gradually apply a coating of a highly doped wide bandgap semiconductor known as AZO. AZO consists of zinc oxide that is doped with aluminium. It is much less expensive than ITO and just as transparent, but not quite as electrically conductive. This process caused tiny AZO crystals to form on the silver nanowires, enveloped them completely, and finally filled in the interstices. The silver nanowires, measuring about 120 nanometres in diameter, were covered with a layer of about 100 nanometres of AZO and encapsulated by this process.

Quality map calculated

Measurements of the electrical conductivity showed that the newly developed composite electrode is comparable to a conventional silver grid electrode. However, its performance depends on how well the nanowires are interconnected, which is a function of the wire lengths and the concentration of silver nanowires in the suspension. The scientists were able to specify the degree of networking in advance with computers. Using specially developed image analysis algorithms, they could evaluate images taken with a scanning electron microscope and predict the electrical conductivity of the electrodes from them.

“We are investigating where a given continuous conductive path of nanowires is interrupted to see where the network is not yet optimum”, explains Ralf Keding. Even with high-performance computers, it still initially took nearly five days to calculate a good “quality map” of the electrode. The software is now being optimised to reduce the computation time. “The image analysis has given us valuable clues about where we need to concentrate our efforts to increase the performance of the electrode, such as increased networking to improve areas of poor coverage by changing the wire lengths or the wire concentration in solution”, says Göbelt.

Practical aternative to conventional electrodes

“We have developed a practical, cost-effective alternative to conventional screen-printed grid electrodes and to the common ITO type that is threatened however by material bottlenecks”, says Christiansen, who heads the Institute of Nanoarchitectures for Energy Conversion at HZB and additionally directs a project team at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL).

Only a fraction of silver, nearly no shadow effects

The new electrodes can actually be made using only 0.3 grams of silver per square metre, while conventional silver grid electrodes require closer to between 15 and 20 grams of silver. In addition, the new electrode casts a considerably smaller shadow on the solar cell. “The network of silver nanowires is so fine that almost no light for solar energy conversion is lost in the cell due to the shadow”, explains Göbelt. On the contrary, she hopes “it might even be possible for the silver nanowires to scatter light into the solar cell absorbers in a controlled fashion through what are known as plasmonic effects.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Encapsulation of silver nanowire networks by atomic layer deposition for indium-free transparent electrodes by Manuela Göbelt, Ralf Keding, Sebastian W. Schmitt, Björn Hoffmann, Sara Jäckle, Michael Latzel, Vuk V. Radmilović, Velimir R. Radmilović,  Erdmann Spiecker, and Silke Christiansen. Nano Energy Volume 16, September 2015, Pages 196–206 doi:10.1016/j.nanoen.2015.06.027

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sea sapphires: now you see them, now you don’t and more about structural colour/color

The structural colour of the sea sapphire

 Scientists are studying the disappearing act of this ocean-dwelling copepod. Credit: Kaj Maney, www.liquidguru.com Courtesy: American Chemical Society


Scientists are studying the disappearing act of this ocean-dwelling copepod.
Credit: Kaj Maney, www.liquidguru.com Courtesy: American Chemical Society

Now, you’ve seen a sea sapphire. Here’s more about them and the interest they hold for experts in photonics, from a July 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Sapphirina, or sea sapphire, has been called “the most beautiful animal you’ve never seen,” and it could be one of the most magical. Some of the tiny, little-known copepods appear to flash in and out of brilliantly colored blue, violet or red existence. Now scientists are figuring out the trick to their hues and their invisibility. The findings appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and could inspire the next generation of optical technologies.

A July 15, 2015 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Copepods are tiny aquatic crustaceans that live in both fresh and salt water. Some males of the ocean-dwelling Sapphirina genus display striking, iridescent colors that scientists think play a role in communication and mate recognition. The shimmering animals’ colors result when light bounces off of the thin, hexagonal crystal plates that cover their backs. These plates also help them vanish, if only fleetingly. Scientists didn’t know specifically what factors contributed to creating different shades. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute [Israel] and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat [Israel] wanted to investigate the matter.

The researchers measured the light reflectance — which determines color — of live Sapphirina males and the spacing between crystal layers. They found that changes of reflectance depended on the thickness of the spacing. And for at least one particular species, when light hits an animal at a 45-degree angle, reflectance shifts out of the visible light range and into the ultraviolet, and it practically disappears. Their results could help inform the design of artificial photonic crystal structures, which have many potential uses in reflective coatings, optical mirrors and optical displays.

To sum this up, the colour and the invisibility properties are due to thin, hexagonal crystal plates and the spacing of these plates, in other words, structural colour, which is usually achieved at the nanoscale.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Structural Basis for the Brilliant Colors of the Sapphirinid Copepods by Dvir Gur, Ben Leshem, Maria Pierantoni, Viviana Farstey, Dan Oron, Steve Weiner, and Lia Addadi. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2015, 137 (26), pp 8408–8411 DOI: 10.1021/jacs.5b05289 Publication Date (Web): June 22, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who’s interested, Lynn Kimlicka has a nice explanation of structural colour in a July 22, 2015 posting on the Something About Science blog where she discusses some recent research iridescence in bird feathers and synthetic melanin. She also shares a picture of her budgie and its iridescent feathers. The ‘melanin’ research was mentioned here in a May 19, 2015 posting where I also provide a link to a great 2013 piece on structural throughout the animal and plant kingdoms by Cristina Luiggi for The Scientist.

Understanding how nanostructures can affect optical properties could be leading to new ways of managing light. A July 23, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes a project at the University of Delaware dedicated to “changing the color of light,”

Researchers at the University of Delaware have received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to explore a new idea that could improve solar cells, medical imaging and even cancer treatments. Simply put, they want to change the color of light.

A July 23, 2015 University of Delaware (UD) news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about the proposed research,

“A ray of light contains millions and millions of individual units of light called photons,” says project leader Matthew Doty. “The energy of each photon is directly related to the color of the light — a photon of red light has less energy than a photon of blue light. You can’t simply turn a red photon into a blue one, but you can combine the energy from two or more red photons to make one blue photon.”

This process, called “photon upconversion,” isn’t new, Doty says. However, the UD team’s approach to it is.

They want to design a new kind of semiconductor nanostructure that will act like a ratchet. It will absorb two red photons, one after the other, to push an electron into an excited state when it can emit a single high-energy (blue) photon.

These nanostructures will be so teeny they can only be viewed when magnified a million times under a high-powered electron microscope.

“Think of the electrons in this structure as if they were at a water park,” Doty says. “The first red photon has only enough energy to push an electron half-way up the ladder of the water slide. The second red photon pushes it the rest of the way up. Then the electron goes down the slide, releasing all of that energy in a single process, with the emission of the blue photon. The trick is to make sure the electron doesn’t slip down the ladder before the second photon arrives. The semiconductor ratchet structure is how we trap the electron in the middle of the ladder until the second photon arrives to push it the rest of the way up.”

The UD team will develop new semiconductor structures containing multiple layers of different materials, such as aluminum arsenide and gallium bismuth arsenide, each only a few nanometers thick. This “tailored landscape” will control the flow of electrons into states with varying potential energy, turning once-wasted photons into useful energy.

The UD team has shown theoretically that their semiconductors could reach an upconversion efficiency of 86 percent, which would be a vast improvement over the 36 percent efficiency demonstrated by today’s best materials. What’s more, Doty says, the amount of light absorbed and energy emitted by the structures could be customized for a variety of applications, from lightbulbs to laser-guided surgery.

How do you even begin to make structures so tiny they can only be seen with an electron microscope? In one technique the UD team will use, called molecular beam epitaxy, nanostructures will be built by depositing layers of atoms one at a time. Each structure will be tested to see how well it absorbs and emits light, and the results will be used to tailor the structure to improve performance.

The researchers also will develop a milk-like solution filled with millions of identical individual nanoparticles, each one containing multiple layers of different materials. The multiple layers of this structure, like multiple candy shells in an M&M, will implement the photon ratchet idea. Through such work, the team envisions a future upconversion “paint” that could be easily applied to solar cells, windows and other commercial products.

Improving medical tests and treatments

While the initial focus of the three-year project will be on improving solar energy harvesting, the team also will explore biomedical applications.

A number of diagnostic tests and medical treatments, ranging from CT [computed tomography] and PET [positron emission tomography] scans to chemotherapy, rely on the release of fluorescent dyes and pharmaceutical drugs. Ideally, such payloads are delivered both at specific disease sites and at specific times, but this is hard to control in practice.

The UD team aims to develop an upconversion nanoparticle that can be triggered by light to release its payload. The goal is to achieve the controlled release of drug therapies even deep within diseased human tissue while reducing the peripheral damage to normal tissue by minimizing the laser power required.

“This is high-risk, high-reward research,” Doty says. “High-risk because we don’t yet have proof-of-concept data. High-reward because it has such a huge potential impact in renewable energy to medicine. It’s amazing to think that this same technology could be used to harvest more solar energy and to treat cancer. We’re excited to get started!”

That’s it for structural colour/color today.

Spray-on solar cells from the University of Toronto (Canada)

It’s been a while since there’s been a solar cell story from the University of Toronto (U of T) and I was starting to wonder if Ted (Edward) Sargent had moved to another educational institution. The drought has ended with the announcement of three research papers being published by researchers from Sargent’s U of T laboratory. From a Dec. 5, 2014 ScienceDaily news item,

Pretty soon, powering your tablet could be as simple as wrapping it in cling wrap.

That’s Illan Kramer’s … hope. Kramer and colleagues have just invented a new way to spray solar cells onto flexible surfaces using miniscule light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum dots (CQDs) — a major step toward making spray-on solar cells easy and cheap to manufacture.

A Dec. 4, 2014 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, gives a bit more detail about the technology (Note: Links have been removed),

 Solar-sensitive CQDs printed onto a flexible film could be used to coat all kinds of weirdly-shaped surfaces, from patio furniture to an airplane’s wing. A surface the size of a car roof wrapped with CQD-coated film would produce enough energy to power three 100-watt light bulbs – or 24 compact fluorescents.

He calls his system sprayLD, a play on the manufacturing process called ALD, short for atomic layer deposition, in which materials are laid down on a surface one atom-thickness at a time.

Until now, it was only possible to incorporate light-sensitive CQDs onto surfaces through batch processing – an inefficient, slow and expensive assembly-line approach to chemical coating. SprayLD blasts a liquid containing CQDs directly onto flexible surfaces, such as film or plastic, like printing a newspaper by applying ink onto a roll of paper. This roll-to-roll coating method makes incorporating solar cells into existing manufacturing processes much simpler. In two recent papers in the journals Advanced Materials and Applied Physics Letters, Kramer showed that the sprayLD method can be used on flexible materials without any major loss in solar-cell efficiency.

Kramer built his sprayLD device using parts that are readily available and rather affordable – he sourced a spray nozzle used in steel mills to cool steel with a fine mist of water, and a few regular air brushes from an art store.

“This is something you can build in a Junkyard Wars fashion, which is basically how we did it,” says Kramer. “We think of this as a no-compromise solution for shifting from batch processing to roll-to-roll.”

“As quantum dot solar technology advances rapidly in performance, it’s important to determine how to scale them and make this new class of solar technologies manufacturable,” said Professor Ted Sargent, vice-dean, research in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at University of Toronto and Kramer’s supervisor. “We were thrilled when this attractively-manufacturable spray-coating process also led to superior performance devices showing improved control and purity.”

In a third paper in the journal ACS Nano, Kramer and his colleagues used IBM’s BlueGeneQ supercomputer to model how and why the sprayed CQDs perform just as well as – and in some cases better than – their batch-processed counterparts. This work was supported by the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, and by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

For those who would like to see the sprayLD device,

Here are links and citation for all three papers,

Efficient Spray-Coated Colloidal Quantum Dot Solar Cells by Illan J. Kramer, James C. Minor, Gabriel Moreno-Bautista, Lisa Rollny, Pongsakorn Kanjanaboos, Damir Kopilovic, Susanna M. Thon, Graham H. Carey, Kang Wei Chou, David Zhitomirsky, Aram Amassian, and Edward H. Sargent. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201403281 Article first published online: 10 NOV 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

Colloidal quantum dot solar cells on curved and flexible substrates by Illan J. Kramer, Gabriel Moreno-Bautista, James C. Minor, Damir Kopilovic, and Edward H. Sargent. Appl. Phys. Lett. 105, 163902 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4898635 Published online 21 October 2014

© 2014 AIP Publishing LLC

Electronically Active Impurities in Colloidal Quantum Dot Solids by Graham H. Carey, Illan J. Kramer, Pongsakorn Kanjanaboos, Gabriel Moreno-Bautista, Oleksandr Voznyy, Lisa Rollny, Joel A. Tang, Sjoerd Hoogland, and Edward H. Sargent. ACS Nano, 2014, 8 (11), pp 11763–11769 DOI: 10.1021/nn505343e Publication Date (Web): November 6, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

All three papers are behind paywalls.

Given the publication dates for the papers, this looks like an attempt to get some previously announced research noticed by sending out a summary news release using a new ‘hook’ to get attention. I hope it works for them as it must be disheartening to have your research sink into obscurity because the announcements were issued during one or more busy news cycles.

One final note, if I understand the news release correctly, this work is still largely theoretical as there don’t seem to have been any field tests.

A multiferroic material for more powerful solar cells

A Nov. 12, 2014 INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique; Université du Québec) news release (also on EurekAlert), describes new work on solar cells from Federico Rosei’s laboratory (Note: Links have been removed; A French language version of the news release can be found here),

Applying a thin film of metallic oxide significantly boosts the performance of solar panel cells—as recentlydemonstrated by Professor Federico Rosei and his team at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS). The researchers have developed a new class of materials comprising elements such as bismuth, iron, chromium, and oxygen. These“multiferroic” materials absorb solar radiation and possess unique electrical and magnetic properties. This makes them highly promising for solar technology, and also potentially useful in devices like electronic sensors and flash memory drives. …

The INRS research team discovered that by changing the conditions under which a thin film of these materials is applied, the wavelengths of light that are absorbed can be controlled. A triple-layer coating of these materials—barely 200 nanometres thick—captures different wavelengths of light. This coating converts much more light into electricity than previous trials conducted with a single layer of the same material. With a conversion efficiency of 8.1% reported by [Riad] Nechache and his coauthors, this is a major breakthrough in the field.

The team currently envisions adding this coating to traditional single-crystal silicon solar cells (currently available on the market). They believe it could increase maximum solar efficiency by 18% to 24% while also boosting cell longevity. As this technology draws on a simplified structure and processes, as well as abundant and stable materials, new photovoltaic (PV) cells will be more powerful and cost less. This means that the INRS team’s breakthrough may make it possible to reposition silicon PV cells at the forefront of the highly competitive solar energy market.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bandgap tuning of multiferroic oxide solar cells by R. Nechache, C. Harnagea, S. Li, L. Cardenas, W. Huang,  J. Chakrabartty, & F. Rosei. Nature Photonics (2014) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2014.255 Published online
10 November 2014

This paper is behind a paywall although there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.

I last mentioned Federico Rose in a March 4, 2014 post about a talk (The exploration of the role of nanoscience in tomorrow’s energy solutions) he was giving in Vancouver (Canada).