All-carbon solar cell harnesses infrared light

MIT – About 40 percent of the solar energy reaching Earth’s surface lies in the near-infrared region of the spectrum — energy that conventional silicon-based solar cells are unable to harness. But a new kind of all-carbon solar cell developed by MIT researchers could tap into that unused energy, opening up the possibility of combination solar cells — incorporating both traditional silicon-based cells and the new all-carbon cells — that could make use of almost the entire range of sunlight’s energy.

The new cell is made of carbon nanotubes and C60, otherwise known as buckyballs. “This is the first all-carbon photovoltaic cell,” Strano says — a feat made possible by new developments in the large-scale production of purified carbon nanotubes.

The early proof-of-concept devices have an energy-conversion efficiency of only about 0.1 percent.

An atomic-force microscope image of a layer of single-walled carbon nanotubes deposited on a silicon surface, as the first step in manufacturing the new type of solar cell developed by an MIT team. Individual nanotubes can be seen in the image.
Photo: Rishabh Jain et al

Other groups have made photovoltaic (PV) cells using carbon nanotubes, but only by using a layer of polymer to hold the nanotubes in position and collect the electrons knocked loose when they absorb sunlight. But that combination adds extra steps to the production process, and requires extra coatings to prevent degradation with exposure to air. The new all-carbon PV cell appears to be stable in air, Strano says.

The carbon-based cell is most effective at capturing sunlight in the near-infrared region. Because the material is transparent to visible light, such cells could be overlaid on conventional solar cells, creating a tandem device that could harness most of the energy of sunlight. The carbon cells will need refining, Strano and his colleagues say: So far, the early proof-of-concept devices have an energy-conversion efficiency of only about 0.1 percent.

But while the system requires further research and fine-tuning, “we are very much on the path to making very high efficiency near-infrared solar cells,” says Rishabh Jain, a graduate student who was lead author of the paper.

Because the new system uses layers of nanoscale materials, producing the cells would require relatively small amounts of highly purified carbon, and the resulting cells would be very lightweight, the team says. “One of the really nice things about carbon nanotubes is that their light absorption is very high, so you don’t need a lot of material to absorb a lot of light,” Jain says.

Typically, when a new solar-cell material is studied, there are large inefficiencies, which researchers gradually find ways to reduce. In this case, postdoc and co-author Kevin Tvrdy says, some of these sources of inefficiency have already been identified and addressed: For instance, scientists already know that heterogeneous mixtures of carbon nanotubes are much less efficient than homogeneous formulations, and material that contains a mix of single-walled and multiwalled nanotubes are so much less efficient that sometimes they don’t work at all, he says.

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