Researchers have identified a technique that could make a new kind of graphene solar photovoltaic panel practical. Indium is used now and is expensive and relatively rare, so the search has been on for a suitable replacement. Graphene electrodes would match flexibility, transparency and low cost needed for organic solar cells.
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.
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. Indium-tin-oxide (ITO, the current material), 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.
While the specific characteristics of the graphene electrode differ from those of the ITO it would replace, its overall performance in a solar cell is very similar, Kong says. And the flexibility and light weight of organic solar cells with graphene electrodes could open up a variety of different applications that would not be possible with today’s conventional silicon-based solar panels, she says. For example, because of their transparency they could be applied directly to windows without blocking the view, and they could be applied to irregular wall or rooftop surfaces. In addition, they could be stacked on top of other solar panels, increasing the amount of power generated from a given area. And they could even be folded or rolled up for easy transportation.
While this research looked at how to adapt graphene to replace one of the two electrodes on a solar panel, Kong and her co-workers are now trying to adapt it to the other electrode as well. In addition, widespread use of this technology will require new techniques for large-scale manufacturing of graphene
In this work graphene sheets grown by chemical vapor deposition (CVD) with controlled numbers of layers were used as transparent electrodes in organic photovoltaic (OPV) devices. It was found that for devices with pristine graphene electrodes, the power conversion efficiency (PCE) is comparable to their counterparts with indium tin oxide (ITO) electrodes. Nevertheless, the chances for failure in OPVs with pristine graphene electrodes are higher than for those with ITO electrodes, due to the surface wetting challenge between the hole-transporting layer and the graphene electrodes. Various alternative routes were investigated and it was found that AuCl3 doping on graphene can alter the graphene surface wetting properties such that a uniform coating of the hole-transporting layer can be achieved and device success rate can be increased. Furthermore, the doping both improves the conductivity and shifts the work function of the graphene electrode, resulting in improved overall PCE performance of the OPV devices. This work brings us one step further toward the future use of graphene transparent electrodes as a replacement for ITO.