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May 14th, 2014
Taking the lead out of a promising solar cell
“This is a breakthrough in taking the lead out of a very promising type of solar cell, called a perovskite,” said Mercouri G. Kanatzidis, an inorganic chemist with expertise in dealing with tin.
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Northwestern University researchers are the first to develop a new solar cell with good efficiency that uses tin instead of lead perovskite as the harvester of light.

Tin is a very viable material, and we have shown the material does work as an efficient solar cell.”

Kanatzidis, who led the research, is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

The new solar cell uses a structure called a perovskite but with tin instead of lead as the light-absorbing material. Lead perovskite has achieved 15 percent efficiency, and tin perovskite should be able to match -- and possibly surpass -- that. Perovskite solar cells are being touted as the “next big thing in photovoltaics” and have reenergized the field.

Kanatzidis developed, synthesized and analyzed the material. He then turned to Northwestern collaborator and nanoscientist Robert P. H. Chang to help him engineer a solar cell that worked well.

Their solid-state tin solar cell has an efficiency of just below 6 percent, which is a very good starting point, Kanatzidis said. Two things make the material special: it can absorb most of the visible light spectrum, and the perovskite salt can be dissolved, and it will reform upon solvent removal without heating.

Perovskite solar cells have only been around -- and only in the lab -- since 2008. In 2012, Kanatzidis and Chang reported the new tin perovskite solar cell with promises of higher efficiency and lower fabrication costs while being environmentally safe.

This union between solid-state inorganic chemistry and solar cell device fabrication is one of the many hallmarks of the collaborative culture at the ANSER Center,” said Dick Co, director of operations and outreach of the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center, which supported the research. “Solving the global energy problem will require a multidisciplinary approach, and this work illustrates the importance of team science in achieving breakthroughs.”

The solid-state tin solar cell is a sandwich of five layers, with each layer contributing something important. Being inorganic chemists, Kanatzidis and his postdoctoral fellows Feng Hao and Constantinos Stoumpos knew how to handle troublesome tin, specifically methylammonium tin iodide, which oxidizes when in contact with air.

The first layer is electrically conducting glass, which allows sunlight to enter the cell. Titanium dioxide is the next layer, deposited onto the glass. Together the two act as the electric front contact of the solar cell.

Next, the tin perovskite -- the light absorbing layer -- is deposited. This is done in a nitrogen glove box -- the bench chemistry is done in this protected environment to avoid oxidation.

On top of that is the hole transport layer, which is essential to close the electrical circuit and obtain a functional cell. This required Kanatzidis and his colleagues to find the right chemicals so as not to destroy the tin underneath. They determined what the best chemicals were -- a substituted pyridine molecule -- by understanding the reactivity of the perovskite structure. This layer also is deposited in the glove box. The solar cell is then sealed and can be taken out into the air.

A thin layer of gold caps off the solar-cell sandwich. This layer is the back contact electrode of the solar cell. The entire device, with all five layers, is about one to two microns thick.

The researchers then tested the device under simulated full sunlight and recorded a power conversion efficiency of 5.73 percent.


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