MIT researchers have produced a new kind of photovoltaic cell based on sheets of flexible graphene coated with a layer of nanowires. The approach could lead to low-cost, transparent and flexible solar cells that could be deployed on windows, roofs or other surfaces.
Illustration shows the layered structure of the new device, starting with a flexible layer of graphene, a one-atom-thick carbon material. A layer of polymer is bonded to that, and then a layer of zinc-oxide nano wires (shown in magenta), and finally a layer of a material that can extract energy from sunlight, such as quantum dots or a polymer-based material. Illustration courtesy of the research team
The manufacturing process is highly scalable, adds Park, the other lead author and a postdoc in DMSE and in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The graphene is synthesized through a process called chemical vapor deposition and then coated with the polymer layers. “The size is not a limiting factor, and graphene can be transferred onto various target substrates such as glass or plastic,” Park says.
Gradečak cautions that while the scalability for solar cells hasn’t been demonstrated yet — she and her colleagues have only made proof-of-concept devices a half-inch in size — she doesn’t foresee any obstacles to making larger sizes. “I believe within a couple of years we could see [commercial] devices” based on this technology, she says.
László Forró, a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, who was not associated with this research, says that the idea of using graphene as a transparent electrode was “in the air already,” but had not actually been realized.
“In my opinion this work is a real breakthrough,” Forró says. “Excellent work in every respect.”
He cautions that “the road is still long to get into real applications, there are many problems to be solved,” but adds that “the quality of the research team around this project … guarantees the success.”
ABSTRACT – Growth of semiconducting nanostructures on graphene would open up opportunities for the development of flexible optoelectronic devices, but challenges remain in preserving the structural and electrical properties of graphene during this process. We demonstrate growth of highly uniform and well-aligned ZnO nanowire arrays on graphene by modifying the graphene surface with conductive polymer interlayers. On the basis of this structure, we then demonstrate graphene cathode-based hybrid solar cells using two different photoactive materials, PbS quantum dots and the conjugated polymer P3HT, with AM 1.5G power conversion efficiencies of 4.2% and 0.5%, respectively, approaching the performance of ITO-based devices with similar architectures. Our method preserves beneficial properties of graphene and demonstrates that it can serve as a viable replacement for ITO in various photovoltaic device configurations.